Letters with Jacky- Debate on the Necessity (or not) of a God
I copy here, in full, the text of a debate I held with my good friend and fellow blogger Jacky Chen over Christmas break. The catalyst was an essay by Walter Russell Mead in his annual Yule Blog series; I have provided the link to that piece at the beginning for context. I have copied the text of our following conversation as it existed in comments, without edits or abridgments. This conversation is useful fresh. Two other thinkers of different views hopped in at various times, and I have kept their arguments in to maintain continuity.
I am not sure that there was a winner to this debate (though it would be Jacky by default, as he had the last word.) But I don’t think it’s so important whether or not there is a winner; the ideas discussed here are timeless, worth pondering by those who wonder, and in any case I think both of our arguments reveal critical influences on our thought. Readers, enjoy.
Walter Russell Mead- “Personal Meaning”
Very well written and the guy has great insight on being a Christian. While he was explaining the two ideas, he kind of placed Theists in front by saying that they are not only these things that the Atheists are but they are also these things. I strongly believe in the natural truths (justice, love, freedom) but I believe in these not as an individual, like this article seems to suggest, but I believe in the idea that all people are naturally driven towards valuing them. God may or may not exist. It’d be cool if he did but it’s fine if he doesn’t because I believe in humanity. I believe in humanity’s (maybe even high conciousness’) connection with these values and in the idea that this connection will guide humans to survive and do great things. With the powers of technology, our potential might as well be limitless. I think that religion is a good thing and it certainly makes many behave better they otherwise would. It definitely provides a pure idea for many people to put, with pure intentions, enormous amount of faith into. I also think that, if this faith could be generated without religion, it could be placed into oneself. After all, if you truly believe in these ideals so much, can’t you throw yourself wholly in support of them? I’m saying rather than go to church every week, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to volunteer at a shelter every week? or rather than living well (being a good person and doing good things on earth) and waiting for a heaven that you believe has already been created for you, why not poor your intentions and faith in creating a better world now? Walter Mead said that Theists believe that these natural truths have a source and that source is God. People will still act upon this and do good but it is in the name of another. They are not fully responsible for it. I ask, “Why not believe that the source of these natural truths is in all of us humans? Why not take full responsibility for what is happening and use these truths to guide us to betterment?”
Jacky: Your ideas are powerful.
I interpret the article as suggesting that the things which atheists and theists share (feelings of spiritual value/tendency to see truths) are true for all humans in general, rather than only for those who choose to accept them; therefore your assertion that human beings naturally discern them seems to me to be a basic truth about human beings. But the difference between those who believe in a God and those who don’t lies in the interpretation of these scientifically untenable phenomena.
Mead argued that non-believers see these as basic parts of life, not to be questioned or examined particularly deeply save for personal meaning, while believers see them as keys and clues to understanding the metaphysical structure of the universe and thus to the meaning not only of an individual life but of all reality. You, on the other hand, argue for a utilitarian usage of these pieces of reality- a constant striving for a better, more perfect world, harnessing the drive for betterment inherent in us to create a heaven on earth.
Please forgive me if it sounds like I am trying to slander you in the following sentences, for I assure you that I am not.
Someone told me once that ‘The Light, the Truth, and the Way’ can all be found by self-reflection and experience. I have found this to be partly true, but I have been cautious to take it so far as to suggest that I, on my own, can do anything that matters. Before the next century turns, I’ll be dead. Before the next millennium turns, I’ll be either bastardized into a figurehead for schoolboys to read about, or more likely, completely forgotten in the minds of men, and remembered by nothing in nature. I am of the opinion that those things that are most truly meaningful are not those things that are fleeting, but those things which endure- and what is Man but fleeting? In studies of politics and philosophy, I have always been encouraged to view everything as a manifestation of things that once were- the notion that ‘there are no new ideas,’ that ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’- for among human beings, within human nature, there is no progress. Our technology progresses, certainly, but societies, and more particularly individuals, all follow the same story of birth and death. They are subject to the same passions and divisions and restrictions which drove their ancestors and which will drive their descendants. I am thoroughly critical of the notion that any Man can create something that will last forever, though I do not doubt that Man can create things that will be of meaning to those around him, who live in his time.
But what IS enduring? Life- the Universe- certain principles, some of which have been discerned and proven by science and history, others which can only be discerned by personal reflection and never proven- in short, a great many things which are far, far greater than my life or yours, or any human life.
We sense that these things are imperfect, and that we are imperfect. Yet we cannot improve, and barely otherwise influence, these things. We CAN improve ourselves. But although we can improve ourselves, we will die. These things won’t.
I think the reason why so many people cast their lots into a greater metaphysical truth, rather than into themselves, is because they sense that the permanence of that truth renders it more valuable than their own meager and finite human lives. To them, it is a thing of humility to cast your lots with God, and the utmost act of hubris to believe yourself to be the source of goodness in the universe.
To answer your idea “the source of these natural truths is in all of us humans” :
You are completely correct, that goodness and justice and righteousness would most likely not be exhibited in a world unpopulated by humans, and were not particularly widespread concepts before our species came to be. (I understand many animals display kinship and affection, and some intelligence, but I think the capacity to truly understand and practice these virtues for their own sake lies in humans alone.)
At the same time, they’re not in our DNA- it has been established that these virtues are scientifically untenable, and even irrational in certain situations. Being good, sometimes, means getting walked on and sacrificing for others.
If it’s not built into our genetic makeup, where could it exist? We are left with those nebulous portions of the heart and mind that often defy comprehension and make people do weird, beautiful things.
By this analysis, yes- goodness and honor and righteousness are in us humans and come into the world through us.
But when you’re good, can you really say you’re creating goodness? Doing goodness, for sure- giving it life through your action, maybe- but creating it? It seems to me that we are EXHIBITING it, but I’d say that’s a far stretch from being the ultimate source. The source on Earth, definitely. The end source?
Humans evolved. Our bodies evolved, and thus did our minds and spirits evolve. Our intellects and passions evolved, for we are complex beings. But to no end but random convenience? I will never have any sort of way to prove or advance this argument- and that is what faith is for- but I am of the opinion that we see the laws governing the universe as unfair (pain, a natural part of life, is caused by them, and people are generally inclined to see unnecessary pain as unfair) because the goodness, the uprightness in us, sees and desires a greater perfection than any this world can provide. As we are not content in this world but yearn for a better one, I am of the opinion that we have a little bit of what I call God in us, and that God wants that essence of himself in us for whatever reason he has. And therefore I see the fountain of goodness not within my own breast, but in God’s.
In regards to the question of whether it would be better to volunteer for an hour a week rather than go to Church-
First off, anyone in the Church worth his salt would tell you it’s better to help people than to go to Church, because that’s displaying virtue and goodness far more than merely partaking in ritual does.
At the same time, there are deep spiritual benefits in attending Church, but those are at a theological level I don’t want to get into at the moment. Long story short, you win that one.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to suggest that belief in God is necessary for a good life. You, as well as a good number of my closest, closest friends, are profound evidence that it is possible to lead a good life and be a good person without acknowledging the existence of a God. In fact, my agnostic friends are, in most cases, far better individuals than the indecorous multitude of Church-goers who are both apathetic in their faith and careless in their conduct and virtue.
However, I have problems with your metaphysics. Improvement in this life is a good thing, a great thing. But it is not the only thing, nor is it the most important thing. Peace with God, an understanding of one’s own place in this universe, amongst the temporal and the eternal, is just as critical, in my view.
Please forgive me that this came off condescending and caustic in parts; I am running on far too little sleep.
Also, disclaimer, I disagree with Mead on some of his points and I am not very Christian in that I don’t buy the idea that love is the hinge around which the world revolves, and I disagree with Christianity on a whole bunch of its teachings.
There’s nothing to forgive ha. We have these conversations too often for me to actually take offense. If you can convince me of your point, than I will believe. I’ll just go down the list of your points I guess. Don’t take offense either (this is all for the sake of intellectual discussion) and get some sleep.
I am arguing that it is natural to follow through with these “natural truths” so humans will end up doing good. As long as people strive to understand themselves and make themselves aware of how others are being affected by their actions, it is something that will happen naturally, I don’t have to convince people of it. This aligns with the “unquestionable laws” idea that you used to characterize non-believers but it flushes out the definition more.
On the, “what is enduring” portion, I get that one person won’t be remembered but what I know is that the smallest actions, given time, can have great affects, whether it is recognized or not that those actions contributed to the end result (butterfly affect). If we create good now, than the affects can last “forever”. We won’t ever know about all the details of how we made the world better but I have faith that I did. Just an example, I was watching a TED video about charity. The best charity to donate to is Against Malaria. For $5, you can help them buy a mosquito net that will last almost a decade. That mosquito net could save a child’s life. That child could go on to live a great life. His whole family tree can exist because you did one simple good thing. By this definition, you can have “everlasting affects”.
I don’t think that we can really capture emotions or morality in DNA haha. Maybe the codes just come with consciousness. Consciousness at a basic level is understanding what is happening around you. At higher levels of consciousness, you can begin to see what is happening in others around you. By the natural process of consciousness, I think the golden rule makes sense for everyone. I don’t know if there is a source or even if there has to be a “source”. All I know is that, for me, it makes sense and that is good enough. If it makes sense for me in a natural way, than I want to believe that it makes sense for others too. Why is knowing the source/knowing if there is a source so important? I can definitely see the humility aspect but it doesn’t have to be made a big deal. And once an individual takes responsibility for it, they will no longer be bound by the thought that someone greater will take care of it for them. They will become responsible.
I believe that religion is a good thing. People are bound by these natural truths but it is very hard for most to be very conscious of their surroundings. Religion makes it so that they don’t have to be. They can follow some well thought out rules and often behave much better because of this. They can be moved to do good things because they believe that they are part of something greater and some everlasting good will be done for them. I just question if this is necessary. If believers are correct, than I have been a good person in my life and it would make sense for me to receive the same benefits that they do (You really think an all-powerful, all-knowing being would strike you down for doing good things but not believing in him because a book written thousands of years ago told you to?). If they are wrong, than I can still be joyful in the thought that I have helped promote goodness in the world by following my naturally driven to do. Win-win.
Side note (Amusing thought): If Atheists are right, than that would mean that the hundreds of religions on Earth have all been created by some very smart people who thought the world would benefit from their ideas. They knew that it would be hard to convince them without a “higher power” so they invented a God or gods to really drive home the points. Those would some great story-telling skills haha and it would all still make sense how they had such insight because of the “natural truths” concept.
Jacky, I don’t think early Religion came out of smart people who thought the world would benefit from the ideas. Many early religion sprouted from simple ignorance which could not be blamed on these people. Think about it, our species as been around for tens of thousands of year, probably even more. They did not know what the sun was, why it gave off heat, or how it rose in the sky. What made rivers move, and what was fire? Humans have never been the sort of species to be satisfied with not knowing the answers to things. So we simply personified the things we could not explain. That’s what the majority of early deities were natural things. Sun, Moon, Stars, Animals, Trees, etc.
The first religions were primitive by any definition. For reasons of limited population, communication, and plain old geography, they never grew to be anything other than a local concern. But religions mutate in time and grow in sophistication as each generation of holy men learn what works and what doesn’t. When populations grew due to the slow but steady growth of knowledge, as if confronted by a bumper harvest, the religions went into an arms race with each other. From gods of wind and thunder and sea, the threats, incentives, and claims of power escalate until every dominant organized religion has a god that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-seeing, and words like “infinity” and “eternity” are deployed cheaply.
Tyler, I was more referring to most of the major religions of the world today that are based on books such as the Bible, the Quran, the story of Buddha, and Bhagavad Gita. Today, the foundation of religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are founded in the books I’ve listed. I don’t really know the details of all the stories but I know they are significant to the religion. Based on this, somebody had to write those stories (all which have good moral lessons) and, since the humor is based on the idea that the source isn’t coming from something higher, they were pretty smart about it cuz obviously millions have benefited from their story today. That is all I was saying. I didn’t really consider religions that don’t hold a huge following today. Either way, the personifying thing still applies to people telling stories. They basically told people, “This is how it is.” That doesn’t necessarily make the world better but it does set up the basis for a power structure that could be used for good or bad. Whether the story tellers knew this or not, it happened.
Hinduism has hundreds if not thousands of gods. Some choose to favor one of the gods but not all of them do. There is one could be said to be “all-powerful” but he is not the center for all worshipers like in Christianity. Buddha isn’t all powerful. He’s just “awakened”, a state that Buddhists attempt to achieve. I don’t know about Islam and I don’t really know these two religions too well so correct me if I’m wrong. I just knew enough about them to refute your claim.
I am in no way attempting to convince you to believe in God, nor is it my right to strive to bring about the conversion of anybody- that is a dialogue that must take place only within any individual’s own soul. My goal here, aside from intellectual discussion, is to convince you (and, honestly, myself to a degree- this is an internal dialogue i have a lot) that religion is not merely a particular route to virtue and self-improvement, but a useful pathway for exploring mysteries unsolvable by reason alone.
I will proceed by the point-by-point basis too.
“Your actions can have everlasting effects.” You have a good argument but I don’t think it reaches anywhere near the true definition of ‘everlasting effects’ if we are being fully honest with ourselves as to what ‘eternity’ and ‘universality’ mean.
To be clear, I believe in people as moral agents- such is necessary to have any faith in humanity at all. But in the grand context of things, what does it matter that you donated that net, and that that child lived? Your soul was a little bit better for it, and a new line of people was preserved, perhaps for millennia- but when Man is extinguished from the Earth and only the silent stars remain looking down, what will that good have mattered? Has the moral fabric of the Universe changed one bit? The eternal principles still reign supreme, and your quiet advance towards righteousness has been lost to the sands of time. Of course the good is still good; but in the context of the universe it is so MEANINGLESS, if goodness only matters to mortal and unperfectible humans.
Add a deeper spiritual reality, add something eternal that humans have a connection to in some mysterious way- then good acts might have some eternal and universal meaning. (I have faith in the importance and necessity of good action too, just not on Earth.)
“Why does there have to be a source?”
Do you hear what you’re saying??? “It makes sense and that is good enough… Why is knowing if there is a source so important?”
A dear friend of mine who, like you, is a dynamic, virtuous, ethical, all-around true person, and a non-theist, phrased it yet more succinctly: “Why does there have to be a why?”
Is not the search for the reasons behind things not the basic force driving all inquiry, be it scientific, logical, or philosophical? And is that not the force that has driven your own personal development in understanding not only the rational and practical things in your life, but also in your values, in your aspirations, and in the things you hold to be true?
Yet if you cease to search after discerning only the things you can prove beyond a doubt, you do the greatest possible disservice to the spirit of inquiry and, in my opinion, your own development. If you discover that there are transcendent truths like justice and righteousness, that there is a deeper spiritual reality that you can feel but not fully understand, that it is possible and necessary to become a better person- and then you accept that all these are true, and cease to speculate upon these things’ origins- then you are honest and humble in your admittance of your inability to comprehend the incomprehensible, yet you grow stagnant in your search for ultimate meaning, and refuse to make a freeing leap of faith. If you say “These things are the way they are because because,” it seems to me that you miss out on the spellbound wonder enjoyed by those who speculate beyond what they can prove in the realm of the metaphysical. I suppose I ought to put it this way- if these principles by which you drive your life are truly the most important, truest things, why do you not concern yourself with discerning their source?
This is one of my favorite parts about your thought, that you believe in the power of individuals to live morally and hold themselves to higher standards so long as they strive truly to become the best possible versions of themselves.
But I think it puts too much faith in people, and that borders on pride.
A good friend of mine once told me “It is not good to be too strong.” Too firm a reliance on oneself, one’s own power, sets one up for failure, for people fail. By our nature we are cracked, unperfectible. That does not excuse us from the quest to become the best possible versions of ourselves- we must still be strong- yet we must acknowledge our weakness. Human potential is not limitless, even with all the benefits of technology and psychology and modern philosophy. For one day we each shall die, and none of us shall ever create something from nothing. And it is the acknowledgement of our weakness and reliance on things we can’t control that the hubris of man is checked. In my personal case that translates into a firm faith in the protection of a God and the superiority of his plans over mine. In your case it translates to a simpler humility.
We both can fail, and we both can become corrupted. But there is a standard that does not change with us.
“You really think an all-powerful, all-knowing being would strike you down for doing good things but not believing in him because a book written thousands of years ago told you to?”
Not at all, and moreover, anyone who believed that nonbelievers who live good lives go to Hell simply for their nonbelief are probably the people on this Earth most assuredly guaranteed spots in Hell, for they equate their own self-righteousness with holiness. The truth behind it is no one alive has any idea what happens when we die, much less what will happen to other people when they die. I’ve told you that I don’t think belief is necessary to live a good life and be a good person; I’m not sure that God thinks it is necessary, either.
But it has its benefits.
That would make plenty of sense- if the atheists were right.
And, in general, I think it’s probably right. Every religion is, in fact, a human invention, fraught with all the blessings and curses, benefits and flaws, endemic to all things human. All religions are conditioned by literature, science, culture, geography, philosophy, personalities, and a thousand other temporal Earthly factors. But they all share a fascination, and an attempt to explain, those spiritual realities which we cannot know in full. The difference between the believer and the nonbeliever, my friend, is that the nonbeliever is content to accept the existence of spiritual phenomena and leave it at that. But the believer dares to delve into those phenomena further, seeking a deeper understanding through inquiries in questions they can never prove, nor ever answer.
I’ll just tell you briefly why I believe in God.
1) I was raised that way, in a Catholic household. This conditioned a lot of my thought and habits; however, it was more a background than a planting of a seed. Had later events not happened, I would now likely at closest be a lukewarm Catholic who didn’t care much for his ‘faith,’ or at furthest have rejected the Church in favor of Deism or a naturalistic humanism similar to yours. But later events happened.
2) I sought, in my political understanding, a philosophical background for unchanging, immutable eternal truths causing the wretchedness of our world, condemning men to the cruel political fate they have known for all eternity. And in my inquiry I discerned that the similarities in fields so far removed as politics, biology, physics, psychology, all the human and natural sciences- not to mention, even, the selfsameness of the universe across time and space- supposed a series of eternal, universal, all-powerful principles governing the activity and existence of all things in this universe. These I determined to be the ultimate reality of this universe, yet I could not accept that they were true simply because they were true. Something must hold them to be true; something must give them their power; whatever it was must have been more powerful than any of them or all of them combined, certainly far superior to anything in this universe. And in this I conceived of the necessity of a lawmaker of the universe, a first cause, from which all reality flows. All my thought is based upon this.
3) I endured needless suffering, and learned what it feels like to lose all hope and all faith in everything I had held to be true. And in seeking salvation from this wretched state I learned the comfort that comes from trusting in the irrational when all else seems lost. In the flames of life my faith in God was forged.
Over time I noticed that the people in my life who were the most profoundly religious, who most emanated their beliefs, were the ones who had endured similar ordeals- mental illness, broken families, irrational insecurity, and various other traumas- and had only grown strong in their faith after having experienced these.
I reasoned that all mankind is condemned to intense and needless suffering, if not yet then sometime later in their lives, for wars and chaos will never end, and even if they did, everyone will one day die, and most of us will lose the people they love. The comfort of trusting in the irrational seems to be a more or less natural impulse when such times come, as the high rates of faithfulness in the Third World, and much lower rates of faithfulness in the First World, seem to exemplify. Therefore I discerned that comfort in the arms of God was not mine alone, but available to all those enduring hardship.
I forever cherish and appreciate our conversations and discussions, never taking offense and always learning something new, and gaining a deeper understanding. I apologize again, profusely, that my prose and attitude have come out caustic and self-assured in these paragraphs- regarding my personality, my pride is my greatest flaw, the one most capable of destroying me, and I sincerely apologize that it pollutes my words and makes things I hold dear sound like the banterings of crusaders and other similarly self-righteous individuals.
Again, no need to apologize haha. You make me feel like I should apologize which I do if you take offense.
On the topic of “Everlasting”:
The Earth will last a long time and, as long as humans don’t kill themselves, we could probably survive for much longer than you might hope (thought: your good deeds could potentially prevent humans from killing themselves). On the basis of surviving a long time, human technology will eventually allow humans to colonize the universe. Based on that idea, our survivability increases even more since we’ll spread across many planets and galaxies. In the grand scheme of things, we could (if enough good deeds are done haha) end up lasting out till entropy tears the universe apart and there is nothing left. There will be nothing (except for God if you believe in him). Does it matter that our deeds don’t survive any further than when God will be the only one around? There will probably have been something like trillions of years of humanity lived. There have been countless people that one’s good deeds have helped. Countless people have enjoyed life. They have soaked up what the universe has had to offer until there is nothing left and they have found joy in it. Yes, in the end, everything will scatter and give way to nothing but I hardly think that trillions of years of experience, made possible good deeds, is a waste. It’s only meaningless if you skip to the end. If you take the time to look at what has happened throughout, I feel like you would be able to find so much meaning. I know some people are dead set on the end result but take a look around, feel the beauty, feel… God or “God”. No matter what the source is, there is something amazing about the emotions we have. I choose to accept it as our consciousness reacting to the universe.
On the topic of “Source”:
I should really edit the things I type so that people don’t misunderstand ha. Sorry about that. On the topic of “source”, I defined source as something beyond yourself when I asked the question because that was how you referred to it previously. I also quickly went through the logic of how any conciousness could make its way to the “natural truths” in my previous comment. Therefore, my “source” is within the reasoning of consciousness itself.
On the topic of “Responsibility”:
Simply because we are imperfect does not mean that we can’t be responsible. You can point to failures in human government but you can also point to successes of human government. Humans fail but failure is key to learning and improving. Also, we don’t necessarily have to die in the future at least not for a very long time. Technology, even a century in the future, might surprise you haha. I acknowledge that we can’t create something from nothing but this isn’t necessary if you don’t focus on the end goal (argument from first paragraph).
The idea of a creator of Physical Laws is probably the best reason that you would want to believe in something bigger, a Law Maker. Who chose the Gravity constant or the speed of light or pi? This is where your “why” argument would stump me. Scientists still need to work on defining this better. I know that Gravity and Light move at the same speed. That makes sense. Newton’s Laws make sense in our environment. Feynman said in an interview once that he disliked when people ask him “why” because they would never actually be able to keep up with the full answer. Perhaps science will be able to unravel it all one day. Till then, I will simply accept the physical laws as they are because that is my reality.
I only continue to apologize out of a consciousness of the self-assuredness that pervades my writing, a self-assuredness which might easily be received as arrogance by, if not you, our other readers both now and in the future; for I truly do not seek to obtain victory over you in this argument, merely hold conversation, and I can easily see my words misconstrued by quite reasonable minds into declarations of my ‘all-knowing wisdom,’ a potentiality I would like to defuse so far as possible.
I take no offense to what you are arguing.
Trust me- more than most other people, I have pondered and pondered the historical effects of our expansion into space, and what that will do to our legacy, and ultimately I am in agreement with you, that it can only bring great things, transfer our history to a greater network of worlds, and expand our species’s life span. But in the context of an eternity, even were we to last trillions of years, that is still just a blink of an eye.
As for the significance of good deeds, do not think I mean they don’t matter at all- for it can make all the difference in the world if you make someone’s day and fill the world with joy rather than with suffering. Life can be spent in nothing better.
But i think we have reached the end of the road on this particular issue, and must agree to disagree- You see good as intrinsically good within itself, a meaning in the midst of chaos, while I see it as good so far as it aligns an individual with what is eternally true in this world and the next. Yours is easily the more defensible argument.
No need to apologize, as I pushed you into a corner there, and did not ask the question fairly.
That said, I can only ask the obvious next question- what is the source of consciousness? From whence does it arise? Scientifically, I know you can give me an answer- from the random development and evolution of life, in these particular circumstances on this particular planet, apparently unique to human beings in the degree which we know it.
But I take it a question further.
If this is all our consciousness is- the result of billions of years of random evolution, with no deeper meaning but what illusion our dopamine and seretonin convince us of- how can we be convinced of its intrinsic worth? Certainly, we can say we become more greatly aligned with who we are, and what we are- but suppose the natural laws in our breasts and consciences told us that dominating others and seeking pleasure for ourselves was acceptable, moral? (I am not sure that they don’t.) Is the only reason why our feelings and our convictions can be said to be important, because they are NATURAL to us?
I mean to say, you put quite a bit of faith in the goodness of human consciousness. Is that all there is? Can there be no force in this universe more powerful, Jacky, than your own mind, or the mind of one of your fellow human beings?
If science cannot provide an answer for why we die, I am loathe to believe science can provide a solution to it. Death is real. I think the age-old quest to find the secret to immortality through worldly means is nothing more than a validation of a fear in our mortality manifested, occasionally, by those who would cut against the grain. The improvement in living standards which this results in is a wondrous thing. But its fundamental cause, I think, is futile. There are things- life, thought, war, trade, family, understanding, passion, myth, death- which are different across their manifestations for different human beings in different places and different times, but at their core, they do not change, and are always present. We cannot be rid of them. They are the human experience, why we are the same people our ancestors once were. There is no conquest of them.
You are right that failure is key to improvement- I don’t think that anyone would doubt that- but this goes beyond the Karate-Kid style trope of failure and into something far more profound. As individuals we will fail, learn, and recover and blossom into something greater. But we will never attain anything close to the perfection we see behind our eyes, unless we are either incredibly arrogant or have incredibly low standards and drive. In comparison to the perfect laws and principles by which this universe is run, I’d call that an essential failing- especially considering that we die at the end. But here, too, it seems that we will have to accept to disagree- you see no limits to the human potential but those we impose upon ourselves, while I see our potentials bounded on all sides by certain impossibilities, pervaded throughout by our final death, our highest imperfection.
Two thoughts on responsibility I very much want to hear your responses to:
1) My personal moral compass is actually not very informed by the Catholic Church or my belief in God. It has been formed by reading ethics and wisdom, by Boy Scouting, by reason and contemplation, by emulation of people I admire, and by general social experience. On very few issues does my Catholic faith wholly affect what I think about virtue. Most of my ethics have been given to me by life, or by my conscience, or I have chosen them as I have determined what I want to become. I do not do right because of a desire to get into Heaven- “What would Jesus do?” and “What if God sees me?” are two questions I have literally never asked myself when confronted with a moral choice.
While not claiming myself to be ‘responsible,’ I strongly believe you would characterize me as someone on the path to responsibility, someone who has internalized virtue and ethics, someone who ‘gets it.’ By this definition, my religion and my belief in God are merely superfluous. I could be everything I am, do everything I do, without them, and so could all people like me. How true do you think this is? Can you see any other useful purpose of religion, than merely a tool of fear to keep mischievous humans in line?
2) In Christian theology, and much other monotheistic theology in general, an extreme emphasis is placed on being ‘One with God.’ “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” is the victorious prayer of a saint living well and serving others. It is taught that there is a seed of the Divine in every human soul, that we have part of the goodness of God inherent in us, part of him internalized, and that it is our purpose to cultivate that part and ‘do God’s work on Earth.’ The idea of the ‘Body of Christ’ looks, in model, shockingly like a mystical treatise out of some Eastern religion- the connectivity of all souls to the spirit of God, all of them being a part of its objective virtue and love, and all of them, by exemplifying its precepts becoming superior people.
A lot of your opposition to the necessity of a God in this universe seems to spring from your interpretation being that that God would be a figure entirely separate from this Universe and entirely separate from human beings, a moral law-writer with a whip and a lightning bolt to strike down those who did not do good. Yet this is not at all what the Christians who know their faith perceive of when they talk of God- Their God lives both above them and in them.
In light of this, is it possible that one might believe firmly in God, and in the notion that virtue comes from God, yet simultaneously believe that virtue comes from within themselves?
Perhaps I should publish the essay I wrote on what science cannot solve a few years ago, and put it on my blog.
You know far better than me that the trend of things is the more science discovers, the more it finds that it does not know.
It would seem, I think, from your view, that the science argument for God could be refuted if enough could be discovered about the workings of the universe to explain it all. But do you really believe that such an understanding will ever be known by our descendants, a trillion trillion years down the road from now? Do you think they will solve all the questions there are to ask? Suppose all the physical laws we know were compressed into one basic principle explaining all of them and their relationships to each other. The next question would be “what is the source and origin of this principle? Why is it true?” It could not be answered from within itself- “Because because” is never satisfactory to the human mind. The truth would likely be infinitely more complex, and science would continue, discovering grand new truths about the universe and applying them to better life for human beings.
I think if there is anything science teaches, it is that the Universe is so infinitely complex, that we will never know all the answers to everything. And there is a single question in particular which I think will never be justly answerable- why is all this here?
Response to Source:
Animals care about each other too. We might simplify it to surviving but an animal is not going to think about which behavioral(!) trends that contribute to its survivability. A threat will obviously make the animal align its immediate behavior with surviving but I don’t think they plan out their long term behavior ha.
I think there is definitely a balance between the many motives of a person and it is up to that individual’s to decide what is right. I am of the opinion that, in an ideal situation, people would act much more logically but that world is pretty chaotic. I am putting faith in consciousness itself, not just human consciousness. What you call “powerful”, I think of as naturally occurring. There is no power in it, it simply is. When thinking of politics and laws, I see where you would draw the word powerful from but, in my shoes, I don’t believe there is a higher law maker. I don’t believe there are laws at all. I believe in consciousness and its ability to draw conclusions. We are not acting on laws, we are acting on conclusions. Funny side note again haha (Think about the idea of freedom if there was a higher being creating our “natural truths”).
Response to Responsibility:
An MIT Professor said something like, “I am sad to be among the last generation of humans to have to die.” Just saying that the “age-old search for immortality” can not be even closely compared to what we are doing today. Just think about it. Death is important and will still happen but whether it will become a choice in the future is not completely unheard of (at least consider it).
I already said perfection isn’t necessary. The fact that we want it and strive for it is what matters more. Good doesn’t have to be perfect. Opinion?
(1) I used to be like you. It’s a fine situation. Religion is good. As long as you don’t become complacent and rely on it as the only thing that you are putting your efforts into, you aren’t really losing anything. My best friend was atheist before I was. He’d ask “why?” and I’d reply “why not?”
(2) Haha, sure. Basically my answer for #1 ha. God is something that we can’t really prove but we also can’t disprove it.
Response to Physical Laws:
True. I also asked impossible questions. I was just leaving room for a perspective far beyond our’s. Who knows what we will know if a trillion years pass. Remember your original argument though, it is the action of “asking why” that is so human, not the answer.
Hey guys! I am really impressed by the conversation that you are having, and it sounds like it has happened before. I would like to express perhaps a few different perspectives on Christianity that Luke may not have expressed.
go for it! this is open to all!
1. I believe that we are not sanctified by the things we do, good or bad. I don’t believe that I am going to heaven because of the life I lead or the things I do.
2. I don’t say that I follow Christ either because I want to go to heaven. Sure that’s a great promise of the future, but I do it more significantly because I believe that God is the creator of the universe and who is there better to follow? Certainly no human could live up to that claim or authority.
3. Talking about religion is a difficult thing. I consider myself to be religious, but at the same time there is a great separation between religion and my relationship with God. Religion for Christians is the church and all the things that go along with it. It is a structure through which people who share the same relationship with God can learn from one another, share the good news about Christ, and in fact do some very good things.
4. One thing about the bible. I don’t believe that it created or is the basis of the Christian faith or religion. I think that the cornerstone of the Christian faith is Jesus. If you read the gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) you can read it as a history book. These people wrote these accounts of Jesus’ life with a level of historical accuracy that is incredible. And when you read these accounts you can look back on the journey of the creation of the church through Jesus and his disciples who spread the word throughout the world, not by passing out bibles, but by performing miracles, evangelizing, and relating to the innate knowledge of something greater that people have. The bible is the divinely inspired word of God, and it is a basis of the Christian faith today, but it is important to remember where it started, and where the center of the Christian faith is, and that is in Jesus.
These were a couple of things that I thought were left out in the conversation you guys were having, or at least it is a Christian perspective on a couple things. I didn’t respond to everything that was said, but if you have any questions about what I think, I would love to share with you.
Thanks for the input Matt.
1. Just wondering about what makes you go to heaven/hell then? Is it the mindset? the baptism?
3. Good point to make. On that definition, it seems like we’ve mostly been discussing the relationship with God part.
4. You said “the bible is… a basis of the Christian faith today”. It is a key part and, even though Jesus’s message may have made it to the present day without the bible, I don’t think that Christianity would be the same today if the bible did not exist. My definition of basis was simply referring to how people see the religion today, not what is actually most important in the religion. I agree with you that Jesus is the center of the faith.
To refer you to something more eloquent and succinct than I could be, read John 3:16. That basically sums it up.
I have often been faced with the animal consciousness argument before and not quite been sure what to do with it (my family treats Jingles like a person, after all.) But I put it this way- humans and animals of all sorts do seem to share together compassion, fraternal love, creativity, perhaps even honor of a sort. But can animals feel awe? Can they ask the purpose of their existence? Can they grow anxious if they see no meaning in their lives? Ultimately we can never know. But so long as we do not, I think it is a leap of faith at least the same distance as the leap from laws to a lawgiver, to argue that animal consciousness is anything like human consciousness.
Consciousness and Laws:
I don’t see power as anything mystical. I see it simply as the ability to do things. That being said, I ask again- is it possible that there is any force in this universe capable of doing more things, being more real, than the human mind? Can you conceive of it?
On “I don’t believe there are laws at all.” – You have argued eloquently that consciousness, when fully individuated, naturally pushes towards certain standards and ideals. This heavily, heavily implies that there is either internal programming within consciousness that causes it to strive to manifest those ideals, or something about the nature of consciousness that makes it attracted to those ideals and move toward them outwardly. Either way, consciousness does not make up morals on its own. It has either a drive or an attraction. “We are not acting on laws, we are acting on conclusions.” Why is it that those conclusions, independently reached, happen to be of the same sort from person to person, if manifested slightly differently? Because they are ‘right?’ The word ‘right’ means nothing if it is not in reference to a certain standard, either absolute or relatively absolute. I am not suggesting that the hand of a higher being guides our minds through reason to truth. I am merely trying to stress, that right and wrong would mean nothing if they were pegged to no standard.
Also, I believe you have interpreted my definition of ‘laws’ to mean something like the physical laws of science, which would create a sort of naturalistic determinism among people and eradicate entirely the possibility of free will or responsibility. I think nothing could be further from the truth. I distinguish various sorts of laws- the natural positive laws, unchanging constants like the laws of physics, which in humans manifest in the urge to eat, the urge to procreate, etc; and the natural normative laws, which, in my opinion, form our conscience as our consciousness grows. The thing about natural normative moral laws is WE DO NOT HAVE TO FOLLOW THEM but something tells us they are there, and that, I think, is why consciousness invariably reaches the same sorts of conclusions about respect, self-improvement, honesty, and those other universal morals.
Funny Side Note on Freedom:
I’m sure you recall Loki’s speech to the kneeling Germans about the futility of freedom. I am generally in agreement with him; man was not born to live free, but to live on his knees, constrained on all sides by this world’s imperfections, and his own freedom.
I do not see any meaningful difference between freedom and power, unrestrained. All sorts of constraints bound us in, certain impulses drive us forward, and occasionally people cry for the removal of obstacles in their way to enhance their freedom. When they say this, I hear them clamoring to enhance their power. There is nothing wrong with this- power is a morally neutral thing, usable for good or bad, and generally something we want to have over ourselves and over what other things we can so we can have a semblance of control over our own self-interest. But we should not delude ourselves, I think, into thinking of freedom as some mystic quality, some ability to do precisely as we please. What do successful people do with freedom? They live on their knees- they bound that freedom through discipline, to make themselves better.
This being said, I assume when you said to think of the concept of freedom if our natural truths were written by someone else, you meant to say “how can we truly be free if we are not the source of our own truths? If there is a lawmaker, we are simply either doing what he programmed us to do, or living up to his values!” And to that I say, yes-we are not free. In a physical aspect we are enslaved to these bodies of ours; in a moral aspect, the truths we strive to reach, though of us, are unchangeable by us. Freedom has nothing to do with it- only the power to strive, to learn, to grow, as individuals in the face of the pressure of the universe.
If someday we gain the ability to live forever, to transfer our consciences into nanochips and regrow our bodies with biotechnology, and this becomes not mere automatonic drudgery but true eternal life, then I will consider it. I hope if someday we both die and discover that we have immortal souls in a perfect world, you will consider mine.
I’m not sure that our thoughts on this are all that different, actually. We both see goodness in the world as being imperfect but worth working up towards.
“You aren’t really losing anything.”:
You deftly avoided answering my question. I promise I’m not going to get offended. I ask again: Is my religion, and my belief in God, entirely superfluous, as I clearly could be a good person without it?
At the moment, “You aren’t really losing anything” sounds like my religion ‘does me no harm,’ so therefore there is no reason for me to discard it. However, do you think it does me any good to follow it?
“It is the action of asking why that is so human, not the answer.”
To clarify, I do not suppose that “God did it” is the answer to everything. For one thing, that bears another question along my same line of reasoning: “Why did God do it?” And others would assuredly follow. For another thing, something not provable by any scientific or logical means would not provide any actually usable answers.
But that is the beauty of faith. The purpose of religion is not to answer unanswerable questions- it is to provide a forum for pursuing them further, and to open the way for faith in the unprovable, an irrational phenomenon that is, as you know, wonderful in its own right. If anything, this enforces in the faithful a wise humility.
Other points I’d like to bring up:
Faith only in the things we can be certain of is in some fields a very wise and prudent policy. That’s certainly how I think about politics; you have probably not seen me argue against human rights, just war theory, international morality, world government, and a thousand other madly unprovable and frankly bullshitted ideas about how politics ‘ought’ to work, but you will. Wisdom in politics requires a clear analysis of what is clearly true, and therefore I make a point of never referencing anything vaguely supernatural or theological save for rhetorical purposes, when considering how things work in political relations among men.
But in considering one’s place in the universe, and how one ought to view his life, I think faith in the irrational and unprovable becomes no less than critical if we are to move on. You have it; I have it; the man who does not have it probably neither has hope.
It’s been a while haha but I’m back.
On Animal Conciousness:
I was using animals as an example of conciousness’ natural inclination to care once it reaches a certain level. I was pointing out what you said about my faith about human consciousness is not specific to humans but covers all consciousness “I mean to say, you put quite a bit of faith in the goodness of human consciousness.” Yes, a less intelligent animal may not care about the deeper things in the universe but they can still show empathy. Also, I wouldn’t rule out the possibly of intelligent aliens haha.
Conciousness and Laws:
To your first question, yes, there could be other beings out there but the existence of a God by your definition is that he is not tied down by the laws of physics. He literally controls everything which doesn’t make too much sense to me. To your second, I’m not sure what you are saying by “more real”.
I believe that consciousness reaches the natural laws as a reaction to being conscious of others AKA empathy. Therefore, it does not seem far fetched for every consciousness to develop this as they interact with others throughout their lives. You are right about the ideas of “right and wrong” being subjective. If you think about consciousness the way I do though, all of that subjectivity is driven by empathy and will, if thought through with enough consideration, reach the same conclusion. Although, right and wrong As a metaphor, even things such as mass, temperature, and speed can be argued to be subjective. I know this is quite a difficult argument to make but if you sit and think about it and give it a chance, perhaps I can try. We have created many different measuring systems for each of these qualities but they can all relate to one another. In the end, they define a general truth. The measuring systems themselves were all subjectively created (metric vs US) but they can be compared. Once compared, they yield the same result. In the same way, consciousness is a different experience for each of us but in the end empathy makes sense (unless you’re a sociopath or psychopath I guess haha but even if they lack the ability to empathize, they can still recognize it (different argument)). I think we are actually in agreement in your last statement for this part.
I think you made a bold statement when saying freedom and power have no meaningful difference. I agree that freedom is always power but power is not always freedom. It’s one of those square is a rectangle but not the other way around things. Just a small thought and a different argument.
I think freedom has quite a bit more to with it than you have stated. Humans naturally want to be free. They want to be able to do what they want. What you have suggested seems to be a great irony unless you believe humans enjoy being controlled (I get that the idea of God is someone who is worthy of being controlled by but still). What is the point of an all powerful God programming us to be imperfect but forcing us to chase “perfection” in what comes naturally to us (“in striving, in living, in growing”)? It’s almost comedic.
Of course haha.
Benefit of Religion:
Many people definitely benefit from religion but it’s a benefit that depends on the individual. However much they allow themselves to be comforted by the religion is how much they get out of it (prayer). Also, most likely, a stronger belief will probably lead to stronger actions which yield stronger results. It’s also nice for creating a space for human connections.
I want to point out a statistic that you’ve mentioned to me though. 3rd world countries have higher percentages of religious people than 1st world countries. Think about why. Many non-believers from 1st world countries have most likely found other things to believe in that serve to replace the role of religion (not a direct replacement but something/things that also comforts them).
Faith is an interesting and wonderful thing. That said, I don’t believe it pursues the answer further, at least not according to the scientific approach. It’s like saying that shiny thing in the sky is the god Mars and the other one is Venus and that is why it is up there. How’d they come into being? O, well this origin story shall clarify that detail… Even in this example, you can see how you are right. People would then go on to have faith in how the gods Mars and Venus came into being. I probably misunderstood what you meant here though so it’d be nice if you could clarify the benefits of what you mean by “providing a forum”.
Humility is always good no matter how you end up getting it. You don’t particularly need religion to learn humility though.
“But in considering one’s place in the universe, and how one ought to view his life, I think faith in the irrational and unprovable becomes no less than critical if we are to move on. You have it; I have it; the man who does not have it probably neither has hope.” – I find this sentence quite fascinating. Please elaborate the details so I can follow your thought process here. I find hope in myself and other people around me. People are irrational all the time but that isn’t the point. They obviously exist but are they defined as an irrational thing to have faith in?
By this point, a few days before either of us headed back to college, I had been so swamped with various bits of work and meetings with friends from home that I had no time to craft an adequate reply, which is unfortunate- among the last points Jacky brought up were some which I would have and will in the future have a grand time arguing against, and explaining my position. This conversation has no answer, no solution, and will doubtless pop up in various forms every once in a while. When it does, I will make sure to publish our further discourses.