Friday, December 4, 2009

Total Honesty and the Confessional Genre, or, Why You Would Like Me Less if You Knew Me Better

For the last post on this blog, I'm going to try what I will call an art of living experiment--a test of an idea. The idea is that people should be more honest with one another than they currently are. Almost everyone espouses this principle in some form or another, it's enshrined in many of the world's popular religions, and yet few of us seem to follow it. The standard interpretation of this is that the ideal is worthy, yet we as individuals are too constitutionally weak/poorly socialized/debased by some ancestral sin to live up to it. But what if that's all wrong? What if the many deceptions that we participate in as individuals are actually necessary to our interpersonal relations? I suspect, strongly, that they are, and that a world in which we expressed ourselves openly and frankly, particularly about how we feel toward our fellow creatures, would be a coarse, nasty world in which there are more hurt feelings and grudges than already exist.

So, without further ado, here are a few words of total honesty. These are things that I really, actually think and do, sometimes often:

If you have ever found yourself in some misfortune of your own making and come to me looking for sympathy, I probably felt burdened by the inconvenience. I also probably thought that you deserved what you got, and really ought to take it as a lesson and move on with your life. When people lose loved ones, I am more sympathetic (that's not their fault, after all), but nevertheless instinctively shrink from engaging with their sorrow too deeply. In short, I am cruel, impatient, narcissistic, and emotionally shallow. I have to force myself at great effort to offer compassion to others.

If you have ever enforced any kind of structure that involves me, I have probably despised you for it and thought terrible things of you. I am a borderline anarchist in terms of everyday organization and I hate rules like poison. I grant them the right to exist solely for their effects and view all deadlines as arbitrary when they are applied to me. To make matters worse, I do not grant you this same standard, and will act petulant and annoyed if you are late for anything. Rather than reform my time management skills to be more productive, I will blame others for imposing constraints upon what I may do and when. I am fully aware that this is childish, petulant, and hypocritical, but that doesn't seem to stop me from acting in this manner.

If you have ever made me angry, I may likely have plotted some sort of wicked, vengeful, possibly elaborate retaliation. When I was no longer angry, I looked back on it as the most curious species of lunacy, and yet next time I lose my temper I will again concoct an idea as bizarre as all of the previous ones.

I like company in controlled doses, but too much time around people makes me exceptionally grouchy, and I find myself being short and rude to people for no good reason. I then convince myself that there was something wrong with the person to whom I was unkind, to excuse myself from the ethical implications of spreading ill-will in the population. When I am rested and recharged, I usually feel bad about this, but then also usually forget to apologize.

I've found that the practice of meditation makes me less like everything that I've already described: less impatient, less capricious, less unkind and generally more friendly. And then I don't make time to do it, because I clearly don't prioritize these qualities enough to seek them out.

If there are dates or other commemorative events which you find meaningful, I will forget them as easily as if you had reminded me in another language. I cannot possibly be bothered to think about anyone other than myself to the extent that I would record and observe such things, and my adherence to schedules ends precisely where and when my notion of perceived gain does. Moreover, if you take me to task for it, I will attack you for being a rote slave to tradition, as a sort of preemptive strike to make you leave me be. In fact, I will start all manner of argument at any given time to deflect attention from any failings of obligation that I may have performed.

In short, I am a bad person on good days, and an atrocious one if I am exhausted or harried. If you knew what I thought, you would probably find me contemptible. I am sometimes genuinely surprised that anyone wants to be my friend and shocked that there is a woman who puts up with all of this on a daily basis. She must be the other kind of person.

Now, if I were to openly express these sentiments in conversation, no one would want to talk to me more than once. And so I don't, because, at the end of the day, I like having people to talk to. And as bad as all of this is, I have a creeping suspicion that I may not be worse than most other people. There are, of course, the ones with the sunny dispositions that are naturally gifted with kindness and optimism, but they are relatively few and exceptionally lucky. Now, assuming that I am not alone in refraining from speaking the nastier concoctions of my imagination, I must ask: is the world a better or worse place because of this? It is implicit, of course, in the idea that if we can't say anything nice, that we shouldn't say anything, that plenty of us are thinking things that aren't nice all the time. And I think we should leave it that way. How about you?

Homebrewing and Thoreau: How We Really Only Love What We Make

As a part of my own art of living, I have recently begun to make my own beer. Although I would like to claim that Henry David Thoreau inspired me to do this, that would be a lie. I have home-brewed intermittently in the past, and my decision to take it back up had more to do with reacquiring the necessary equipment and ingredients than with any philosophical epiphany. Thoreau did, however, make me think a good deal about home brewing and why I enjoy it, and that, I suppose, is the next best thing. I think of this when he suggests in "Economy," the opening and longest essay of Walden that , "[students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end."  What he seems to contrast here are lives (typically associated with students, but in reality, typical of almost everyone) in which we learn by authority rather than experience.  This is how most of us know nearly everything we claim to know, of course, and to an extent there is good reason for this: there simply isn't time in the world, given the relative brevity and certain end of human life, for us all to learn every trade, fact, or hobby by hand.  We can reject the germ theory of disease, of course, and act as if all manner of contamination and filth were our dear companions, all as an intellectual experiment, or we can read any history of the European Middle Ages and conclude that living like that might be better experienced at some remove.

But at the same time, only enjoying the fruits of the learning and labors of others rather smacks of cherry-picking the fruits of life--freeloading, really.  And, to return to the topic at hand, that is perhaps why I like making beer.  It is not receiving it on authority.  It is not practice or play life, or at least not as ersatz as just buying the stuff, anyway.  It requires getting in touch with, oddly, life, because life makes beer.

What am I on about?  Most people don't know.  Most people have no idea that the alcohol, be it beer, wine, or spirits, that they consume is the result of omnipresent microorganisms infesting objects high in the sugars that the latter feed upon.  And you'd never know until you watch it happen: until you sprinkle a packet of brewer's yeast atop a cooling vat of water, malt, and hops, and then close it up and watch as a frothing, boiling scum appears at the top and gradually subsides over the course of several days--you would never know that alcohol and carbon dioxide are waste products of a controlled bacterial infestation, that when you drink beer you are, to be truly indelicate, consuming yeast shit.

But I know; I've watched it, in all of its sublime, if entirely localized, grandeur.  And I don't like beer any less as a result of it (in fact, and returning to Thoreau, making beer is inexpensive and rewarding, perhaps like building your own house in miniature).  Making beer is realizing where something comes from; it is seeing a tiny piece of how life works.  It is a trip to the the forge or foundry, the farm or the slaughterhouse, or at least a bit more authentic than a trip to Harris-Teeter to pick up a case of canned, artificially carbonated lager.

But above all, homemade beer, done right, is delicious.  Perhaps I comfort myself by thinking that it is a gesture to nature and simplicity, when in fact I simply like to drink it.  Perhaps so.  But I know that, like the foods we cook in our kitchen here and the peppers that grow on the porch, that there is something, to combine two unforgivable cliches, sweeter tasting in labors of love.  If that is an illusion, as it probably is, it is one that, in my always-evolving negotiation with truth, I am happy to accept.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bioethics and the Problem of Deliberation

Plato's philosophical mentor/literary protagonist Socrates (we know of him mainly through Plato's dialogues) spends his hours and days taking every man's ideas to task, asking each to examine his (sadly, no "her") beliefs through the technique of dialectic—examining statements by subjecting them to all manner of contradictory propositions to see if they hold up. The idea is inherently familiar to us, as, not coincidentally, it is the foundation of our legal trials in most of the West. It bears note that the same process is used whether we start from the assumption of innocence or guilt.
So why is the concept of deliberation to arrive at the truth problematic? Because philosophical deliberation, which, on some level, is meant to be a tool to arrive at ethical decisions in the practical world of events and consequences, can also serve as a paralyzing force that problematizes every course of action until it seems of specious application to actual situations. Put more plainly, we just don't have the time in the complex world of human affairs to seek philosophically untroubling solutions to the constant demand for ethical action in the world; the world doesn't stop to wait for us to make up our minds on ethical questions requiring prompt (and critical) decisions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of bioethics: whether we speak of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, stem-cell research, human cloning, "conscientious objection" to vaccination, blood transfusion, hospital care, what have you—we face situations in which the lives and life qualities of countless humans are contingent upon the construction and implementation of actual policies; the kind of policies that have legal, economic, and other material considerations that simply do not wait for philosophical consensus. Nor, really, should we desire that they do: anyone who believes that consensus need always precede policy would have to live in a world in which each new technology were innocent until proven guilty, in which we gave a long enough ethical rope to each technology to morally hang itself.
I am reminded of a law school joke (it isn’t the funny kind): three judges go duck hunting and see a duck fly overhead.  The Supreme Court justice begins to lecture on the jurisprudence of biodiversity and the rights in principal of ducks; the circuit court justice considers the ethics of hunting and the appropriate use of firearms; the third, a district court judge, levels his rifle and takes a shot at the duck.  Ultimately, all of us are all three of these judges; we must have theories and theories of theories, but, unless we plan to retire to lives of ascetic contemplation, we all must make practical and hard decisions in the world—we all have to shoot at the duck.

Monday, October 12, 2009

But What of Earth?

I have a friend, who was once my downstairs neighbor, here in Wilmington.  We shall call her Claire.  She does not know that I am writing this, yet would certainly recognize her unique story if she happened to stumble across this blog.  Claire had to move away from the apartment that was underneath mine, back to her parents’ home in the North, because of a host of medical problems that have dogged her since birth.  In the last few years they have worsened significantly, taking away her ability to work or live independently, leaving her frequently bedridden and in pain.  She has difficulty walking, eating, breathing, and sleeping, is subject to regular migraines, allergies and sporadic infections, and requires constant trips to the emergency room when one of her ailments threatens her safety and demands immediate care.  She takes myriad daily medications, always subject to change as her body develops adverse reaction to them.  The worst part of all of this is that her doctors, the many, many of them that she has been through, do not know precisely what causes her condition.

As humans are social creatures and we live, at least in the West, in a digital age, my friend has established a web page through an online service called CaringBridge that caters specifically to the chronically and severely ill.  Through it, she constantly updates all those who care to know about her condition.  Her resolve and good cheer, given her truly appalling luck in the genetic lottery, is remarkable—almost obscene, really.

Claire’s secondary (or perhaps primary; it’s difficult to tell) reason for using this web service is to connect with other severely—frequently terminally—sick people and to share the attendant sense of community derived from living with all manner of truly malign afflictions.  It might seem peculiar (or even ghoulish) to the healthy to surround oneself with the imminent death of new friends, but that is what Claire does.

I suppose that all of the above is merely a preface.  Claire maintains her good cheer in the face of pain and fatigue and illness, tragedy and loss, through constant reference and recourse to her faith in a loving God.  She uses an acronym (I do not think it is her invention); “F.R.O.G.”: fully rely on God, to explain her overall attitude toward her misfortune, and that of those who she meets and loses with a frequency that would almost certainly sap the spirit of most of us.

I hope that it does not make me seem unfeeling to declare that I think what she believes to be eleven flavors of absurd.  Her constant requests that we pray for her newfound friends—frequently children—that God might relieve them of their afflictions leaves me strangely wondering why anyone might expect reprieve from the kind of God that created childhood cancers in the first place.  I could oppose faith in a loving God—particularly in such circumstances—from so many rational angles that I might instead lose the argument from a paralysis born of too many options.

But this isn’t really about that, at least not exclusively.  On a certain level, I envy Claire’s faith, envy it intensely.  Were I to be in perpetually ill health, still in my 20s, I know that I would not have her good cheer, or the inner nature and acquired belief that supports it.  I would have a difficult time getting around my bad luck, ultimately because that is all I would know it to be.  No redemption.  No afterlife.  No celestial bargains or plans or purposes.  Nothing beyond shitty genes and a short, painful life.  That is what I would be left to deal with in her shoes.

It has occurred to me that perhaps this is not so; that reduced to a particular level of physical helplessness, I might find some kind of belief, the “no atheists in foxholes” version of the inner life.  That I do not think so is not something that I take as a mark of intellectual integrity or courage or anything of the sort; in fact, it is simply that I am made, to steal a line that I cannot properly attribute, so that I cannot believe.  There is a point in the progression of certain nonbelievers, particularly the recovering theists like me, in which we see belief as a world ago, a lost tongue.  We miss it, sometimes, a little like a dead friend, and are as unable to bring it back.  I have heard every shop-worn argument for deities, and ultimately realize that the best ones are heaven and hell, and even then only directed at children: not because they are ever good arguments, but because we would all very much so like them to be, and are all so hopeful and afraid that they might be true.

But mostly I don’t miss belief at all, and so I shouldn’t really overstate the point about loss.  Because something comes with that loss, that does not come with other losses: a profound power, and, to paraphrase Stan Lee, an equally invigorating responsibility.  The realization that life is short, and that the rest is silence, is terrifying only as much as it is enlivening—the understanding that life’s rarity in the cosmos makes it the ultimate pearl, a thing valuable because of its rarity and not despite it.

And so, contemplating sickness and death as a person who believes that the world as we know it probably about all the world that there is, I have written my own brief meditation on the end.  We can call it an atheist’s prayer for the dying:

May I have lived long and well, so that I leave behind happy memories and good effects for others, and few regrets in my final hours.  But if I have not lived long, may I still have lived well, wasting few moments of the few I have had.  And if I have lived neither long nor well, may I have the courage to realize that the pageant of life continues happily without me, and realize finally that others will have the joys that I have had, and the dreams that I will lose, and that neither I nor the world are the worse for my having gone.  And if I must dream of a future at that most fearful and most hopeful hour, may I take comfort in the awesome grandeur of my journey: not from birth to death (what a pittance!) but from the stardust, the heavy elements that blaze at the heart of celestial engines, the remnant stuff from the explosion that hatched the universe; to the formation of a tiny, molten world; through billions of years of life, branching and snaking its sublime way up into niches and nooks of magnificent, artistic, and utterly inefficient complexity; to a minute as man; to another eon as earth and water; and to finally return out into the space from which I came; to know, at last, that while the part I played was infinitesimal, the drama itself was magnificent.  And in that beauty, let me sleep.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Machiavellian Theism

One encounters the most delightful delightful conundrum in reading Machiavelli's The Prince: the author hails from Italy, then as now, the most ostentatiously Christian place in Christendom; the seat of the Papacy and the Index of Prohibited Books (to which, fittingly, The Prince was added in 1559). The Catholicism of Machiavelli's Italy, then more than now, was rigid and morally absolutist, with the power to consign tracts and authors alike to the flames of this world and the next. So it is doubly scandalous to see in The Prince one of the most relativistic treatments of religion ever penned.

"A certain prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name" Machiavelli writes, "never does anything but preach peace and good faith, but he is really a great enemy to both, and either of them, had he observed them, would have lost him state or reputation on many occasions." If we were to end the quotation at "enemy to both," the typical reader, versed in some aspect of the moral tradition of the West, would assume a fairly standard denunciation of this prince's hypocrisy and false piety. The fact that this is exactly the opposite of what Machiavelli intends--a thoroughly scandalous kind of approval--is quite possibly why The Prince remains compelling: the book is, simply put, an instruction manual for an armory. It describes the tools of statecraft as a collection of weapons, how they are to be acquired, maintained, and employed, and--nothing else. The maintenance of power is as dispassionate as instructions for operating a DVD player or getting the most from the Atkins diet. In his hands (or, as he recommends, the hands of a prince), religion is a tool like every other: like armies and fortifications and ties to the nobility and attempts to compel the respect of the people. Like the state itself, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about religion, any more than these inherent qualities might take up residence in a pitchfork or plow. Most notably, Machiavelli approvingly describes religion as a labor-saving device for those princes who are fortunate enough to compel loyalty on religion's behalf:
[Ecclesiastical principalities] are acquired either by ability or fortune; but they are maintained without either, for they are sustained by ancient religious customs, which are so powerful and of such quality, that they keep their princes in power in whatever manner they proceed and live. These princes alone have states without defending them, have subjects without governing them, and their states, not being defended, are not taken from them. [...] Only these principalities, therefore, are secure and happy.

None of this is an explicit denial of religion's God, however: Machiavelli makes clear that these principalities are also maintained by "higher causes, which the human mind cannot attain to." But rather than a statement of reverence, his effectively total divorce of the spiritual and the temporal reminds us of the Epicureans: if there are gods, they clearly don't have anything to do with us.

It would seem that for Machiavelli, religion is located somewhere in a theoretical great chain of utility: it is a tool in the service of the state, the state itself a tool in the hands of a prince, and the prince a tool in the service of history. And it is precisely because of the chilly detachment with which the author describes the institutions in which most men are emotionally so heavily invested that he has seemed, I think, so evil to some. But we do not think this of the historian describing a time ten centuries past, or of a modern scientists describing a colony of ants. We accept the detachment as a necessary tool of putting aside what we wish to be the case for the physical reality of the situations that we observe. We can currently apply this detachment, without reproach, to phenomena as diverse as child socialization, chemical bonds, sociopaths, and climate change--and be published in academic journals. But a functional critique of religion in the service of the state was probably a bit too ahead of Machiavelli's time...and perhaps of ours.

So could Machiavelli have had any orthodox theistic beliefs, despite his analysis of religion as a tool of great potential utility, not despite but because of its potential to deceive? Oddly, I think so. I think he would realize that the uses of religion would exist as they did regardless of its truth--in fact he seems to say exactly this when he claims it "presumptuous and foolish" to assess these higher causes. We have an example of another scientist, certainly a theist, three centuries after Machiavelli, expressing a similar thought: in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "God helps those who help themselves."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fine-tuning Arguments, Deism, and Why I Don't Think It Matters that Much

Beagle's note: This mini-essay originally appeared in condensed form as a comment at another blog. Why mention it? I think the moral of the story is that writing is nothing if not a good conversation among people with colorful ideas.

My friend the Infuriated SciTeacher (I warn friends like him about such unsubtle blog titles, but there is only so much one can do with scientists) just posted an interesting review of physicist Victor Strenger's The New Atheism, a book which summarizes the last decade of work by the authors Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, as well as some of the arguments in response from theists. I will put it in the queue, although it's going in behind Dennett's own Breaking the Spell, Dawkins' latest take on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, and a whole lot of course requirements. A short essay of Strenger's appears in Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, but that's my whole exposure to him at this point. I'm passingly interested in any good popular account of physics, as the so-called anthropic principle seems to be the new(ish) battleground for most theistic apologists. The idea, for those unversed, is that the mathematical constants of the universe, including gravity, the nuclear force which allows atoms to bind, the speed of light, and a number of other factors seem uniquely set to allow for the emergence of complex matter and, eventually, life. It takes no great genius to see where those of a theological bent take this information. An apparently solid explanation of the idea (I haven't read it yet) is laid out in the the British astrophysicist (and agnostic) Sir Martin Rees' Just Six Numbers.

But one need not be a physicist to see the logical tendentiousness of the theistic version of such arguments. Some iteration of it appears in the Roman Catholic biologist/theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God all the way through creationist pablum such as Canadian journalist and Intelligent Design advocate Denyse O'Leary's By Design or by Chance? I generally reply to such assertions that physics suggests faith with something along the lines of, "Well, that's interesting, but I'm hardly going to Confession over it." I'm not a physicist, or even popularly educated in physics, so for me to try to argue about something on which I am so ignorant would put me in the same camp as the apologists (who, it bears note, are never physicists either). And I don't like that camp; I get poison ivy there. If I'm going to prioritize, following Plato and Aristotle's views on rhetoric, that we try to know what the hell we're talking about before we convince anyone else of it, then it makes little sense for me to find fault with theists for cherry-picking the esoteric bits they like from science to prove theism sans a more comprehensive understanding, and then cherry-picking the esoteric bits that I like to argue otherwise.

My lack of belief, rather, is a basic extension of observation--the rational causality of the events immediately around us and through the annals of recorded human history. And beyond that, we know that miraculous explanations always turn out to be bunkum when we get direct access to the facts: languages didn't get mixed at the tower of Babel; we know how they branch, and can watch it happen in historical time. It is true that this strictly inductive argument does not itself warrant a priori exclusion of miracles in principle, but I am still waiting for any good reason that we should allow for them when the evidence for them is exactly on par with, or perhaps slightly worse than, the evidence for Bigfoot. We know, after all, that large, probably hairy hominids have existed; we have, conversely, no fossil record for deities, unless it be writ in the annals of dead civilizations and their dead gods. We also know that there is something in the human character which leads us to write such creation narratives in the first place: we're still doing it about phenomena as recent as the creation of the American nation (the cherry tree myth) as well as its national pastime (the Abner Doubleday myth). But while academic sciences offer a great deal of help in broadening the debate and refuting theism on many levels, strictly speaking, I'd probably still be convinced without them. I'm pretty much sold by the English rationalist David Hume, and he was writing 100 years before Darwin.

But as importantly, I'm simply not greedy enough to much need to go past the Deist tradition that refuting the anthropic principle seems to target. I don't find it logically compelling, but I'm not terribly interested in ruling it out, either. In fact, if Christian authors, philosophers, and scientists like Dinesh D'Souza, Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Alvin Plantinga would all get together and agree that God crafted the physical constants of the universe and then decided to take a nap for the next 14-15 billion years, we would be witnessing a truly monumental Step Forward, as they would at that point have conceded every meaningful aspect of traditional religion. And to return to the the 18th century (as well as the theme of my upcoming book), I don't think the Deist Thomas Jefferson and the atheist Hume would have found all that much to disagree about, at least in terms of philosophy. Deism may well still be (and probably is) wrong, but it's a really harmless sort of wrong, as it is atheistic at the level of everyday human affairs including (most importantly) human morality.

And this is where the art of living comes in: it is useless to think of conduct and the foundational beliefs that inform them as somehow walled off from one another. While there are certainly human behaviors that are, regardless of religion/nonreligion common across many cultures, at the individual level, our most deeply held beliefs have a profound impact on how we choose to live our lives, particularly in arranging our ethical priorities. And really, as far as ethical priorities are arranged, I cannot think of a morally significant difference in the Deistic and atheistic worldviews. And here I must concede that, perhaps, my belief, that the skepticism and investigation prioritized in both systems are better epistemic tools for navigating human life than credulity and mysticism, is itself lacking in external support, and hence, under an extraordinarily broad definition, religious. But that is a leap of faith that I am willing to take.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Timothy Keller Has Never Met an Atheist: Review of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

What is ultimately so unsatisfying about The Reason for God is that I really suspect that, on some level, pastor of Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church and author Timothy Keller was making a sincere effort at engagement with nonbelievers. His tone is cordial, even genial, when writing about prominent atheists (including the typically reviled "four horesemen" of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens); he doesn't sling mud, distort assertions of nonbelief beyond recognition, brand rationalists as evil or culturally subversive, or even try to explain unbelief as the result of some undisclosed childhood trauma. He concedes that there may even be reasonable and rational arguments for atheism, rather than viewing it as a variety of moral turpitude or delusion. The civility of his discourse is at complete odds with, say, the spin and outright lies of the Intelligent Design creationists of the Discovery Institute or the faith-is-conservatism of the Family Research Council.

And that's why it's disappointing that the book misses the mark so badly in attempting to address the arguments of religious skeptics. It's not that Keller's refutations are particularly poor, even if they are, by his own admission, so heavily dependent upon C.S. Lewis; it's that they're not aimed at his alleged audience. Keller claims that "believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement [over mere denunciation] [...] when each side has learned to represent the other's argument in its strongest and most positive form." And so, each topic in the opening seven chapters in the book purports to be a refutation of skepticism, according to such terms--what Keller calls "a distillation of the many conversations I've had with doubters over the years."

But what the author has instead compiled is a litany of complaints from troubled believers: one chapter addresses, "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" Keller answers, following Lewis' The Great Divorce that this is a choice made by the selfish that they assiduously make into perpetuity. That's fine as far as Christian apologia goes, but that isn't responding to a question nontheists ask each other, really. It would be a bit like asking if they think Santa is a racist for ignoring African children. As a batch, the godless aren't much into moral analysis of entities they hold not to exist, other than as fodder for cruel jabs at the faithful. Keller treats the issue of theodicy similarly: he maintains that reconciliation of God with the existence of evil and suffering somehow heads off the galloping hoards of New Atheists; but that is essentially an in-house debate among the religious, at a time when nonbelievers prefer to deal with physical evidence for deities and their powers over the vagaries of divine-command moral philosophy.

His chapter refuting the historical critiques of the Gospels, entitled (ironically, of course) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally," is in much the same vein, if appreciably worse: Keller argues for the accuracy of Paul's Epistles based upon their chronological proximity to the life of Jesus, while conveniently overlooking the fact that the oldest copies of these manuscripts hail from the third century, after 200 years of amateur scribes had unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) had their way with the story. He argues that the Gospel of Mark would have been written when "thousands" of witnesses to Jesus' ministry were still living, as if sexagenarians on up were a dime a dozen in first century Palestine. He assumes the authenticity of all four canonical gospels, apparently unconcerned that Matthew and Luke are acknowledged by nearly all Christian theologians and biblical textual scholars as later revisions of Mark. He includes the story of the fallen woman from John, although this is a well-established medieval interpolation into the text. Additionally, he supports the historical veracity of the Gospels with the following howler:
For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead. They must all be off the scene so they cannot contradict or debunk the embellishments and falsehoods of the story. The gospels were written far too soon for this to occur.

One less charitably inclined might gather that Timothy Keller is unversed in Holocaust denial, or grassy knolls, or Roswell, New Mexico, or Bigfoot, or Nessie, or 9/11 conspiracy theories or...well, it is unloading artillery on insects to belabor a point so obvious: "highly altered, fictionalized account[s] of an event" "take hold in the public imagination" all the time, without three generations of corpses being at all compulsory to smooth the way toward their widespread public acceptance. The very living nature of Elvis Presley's descendants has not precluded all manner of wild re-creations of his life and death, it merits note.

Either Keller has never read Bart Ehrman, a recent biblical scholar who might dispel some of this confusion, which seems unlikely, or he's betting that his "skeptical" reader hasn't, which is also a suspect wager. Again, his argument seems aimed either at a waffling believer or a serious one looking for argument fodder, not at any group of college-educated humanists.

The second half of the book, the positive case for theism, fares little better in targeting anyone but the already-converted. It begins with a discussion of what Keller deems "The Clues of God": and while so-called anthropic coincidences (the existence of physical constants in the universe that allow for the emergence of life) are interesting, the kind of God implicit in such fine-tuning of the universe is at best Deistic; the evidence, if we accept it as such, has nothing to do with the truth of Christianity. (To his credit, Keller acknowledges as much.) The conversation then dovetails into assertions that human feelings of sublimity, the "unfulfilled longing evoked by beauty" is evidence of something other than itself. And we run into the same problem again: any rational materialist will simply find the argument puzzling; aesthetic appreciation is not something that scientists find, in principal, particularly arcane. The evolutionary narrative says that this is exactly as it should be if sight and sound are means by which we navigate the world.

Ultimately, The Reason for God leaves us with something of an odd set of choices. It's possible that Timothy Keller, despite his indications otherwise, has never actually read the popular works of modern atheism except in condensed and secondary form. Since we all cheat on our reading lists here and there, this wouldn't necessarily be a damning indictment. The second option is that Keller has read Dawkins and Harris, and doesn't understand them well. The third is that he is intentionally misrepresenting the views of nonbelievers in a classic straw-man polemic. I'm not comfortable making any of these assertions. He seems too diligent to be a slacker, too literate to be obtuse, and too sincere to be strategically dishonest.

What I suspect, rather, is that Keller has confused a group of his current and former Manhattanite congregants and visitors who pose pointed theological questions with an entirely different group: nonbelievers who are not "soul searching" but instead are intellectually satisfied with the rationalist project, all its unfulfilled potential notwithstanding. And that's why I want him to participate in a new and different book. This time, I want him to introduce, edit and reply to an anthology of essays by his godless opponents, in order that he may grant them their own voices and idioms and respond as cordially to what atheists actually maintain as he has to what they do not. He might call it The Reason for Dialogue, or something such. Because then I can change the title of this review to: "Timothy Keller Has Met an Atheist."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Definition Drift: Contemporary versus Modern Understandings of Epicureanism and Stoicism

A good deal of the problem with modern comprehension of stoicism and Epicureanism, so far as they are understood at all, is a problem that we encounter with many old terms, particularly those coming from geographically distant cultures: connotation drift. Epicureanism, a term originally employed to suggest a sober and moderate life, took on, perhaps in the hands of its critics, nearly the opposite imputations. Epicurus writes that, far from a life of chasing after the most decadent experiences, Epicureans should prioritize simply those pleasures which occur in the absence of suffering: “All desires which create no pain when unfulfilled are not necessary; such desires may easily be dispelled when they are seen as difficult to fulfill or likely to produce harm.” Yet, in 1866, the English writer John Motley rails against “A horde of lazy epicureans, telling beads and indulging themselves in luxurious vice.” And it is much in Motley’s sense that we understand the idea presently: “Epicurean” today is most commonly found, often in restaurant reviews and wine ratings, describing luxuriant feasts of food and drink that Epicurus himself would likely have found merely gluttonous. In fact, such criticisms had obviously already begun to circulate during his own lifetime, as is evident in the following defense. It might be surprising to see how he described the philosophy which bears his name:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.

Hence, the association of Epicureanism with hedonism is one which he would (and did) explicitly reject. Why, then, this confusion? We can suspect that it stems from Epicurus’ teaching that death is the end of experience, and hence that the existence of the body and mind is all that we can know. The radical reduction of the influence of gods implicit in this denial of the afterlife raises the importance of the human physical form to the highest degree. A shift in focus from the supernatural to the physical of this order may have seemed so radical that the kind of pleasure that Epicurus had in mind for the body was really of no matter to his contemporary and modern opponents; any philosophy which denied the primacy of gods in human experience would (and does) find similar indignation.

Ultimately, Epicureanism is much more closely related to stoicism than we might suspect. And again, this relationship is clouded by the modern understanding that we have of stoicism. We typically understand “stoic” to mean “unfeeling,” and while that’s not a completely baseless interpretation, the idea is better understood as “emotionally detached.” Epictetus’ Handbook succinctly describes the philosophy thus: “The more we examine our attitudes and work on ourselves, the less we are apt to be swept away by stormy emotional reactions in which we seek easy explanations for unbidden events.” While these recommendations can seem exotic to a modern Western audience, the idea that we ought to be aware of and in control of our emotions sits near the center of most Asian religions, chief among them Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of all of these philosophies is not to extinguish emotion but to experience it in its proper sphere—a sphere in which we can observe it take place within ourselves without being ruled by it or otherwise helplessly compelled to act. In short, we are to be able to see our own emotional states with the same level of clarity as if they were occurring in someone else. In fact, some variety of this exact instruction can be found in all of the spiritual and philosophical traditions mentioned.

The point of all this is not, as is commonly suspects, the extinguishing of human joy; it is liberation from the everyday suffering associated with being ruled by selfish cravings. Epictetus makes the point rather forcefully: “It’s much better to die of hunger, unhindered by grief and fear, than live affluently beset with worry, dread, suspicion, and unchecked desire.” When we see the stoic definition of inner contentment as freedom from painful emotions, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish it from the Epicurean definition of pleasure. How odd, then, that two millennia later when the terms are tossed about casually, we use them nearly as antonyms.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Religion, the Examined Life, Oxford Commas and the Problem of Definition

We were having, as a part of our ancient Greeks unit, a sort of directed class discussion last week with the following question as our starting point: is it possible for a religious person to lead a fully examined life? Based upon our initial answers, we were divided in to "yes," "no" and "undecided" groups. I joined the "undecided" group, simply because my answer changes based upon how one defines "fully examined life" and "religion."

I find the idea of the examined life the far less problematic of the two, probably because I choose a fairly practical definition. A few people in our class discussion brought up that, in the course of a human life, it's clearly impossible to examine everything. Now, that's true of course, but I see it as curiously beside the point: no one, to my knowledge, ever proposed that such a thing was possible, or used it as a prerequisite for the concept. My definition of a fully examined life is one in which the individual will subject everything he or she holds true as open questions in principle.

That granted, we are obviously going to have to prioritize which widely or strongly held beliefs we put to the test first. Socrates provides good starting points, like looking at instances in which we believe ourselves or our neighbors believe themselves good or wise. The reason that I like these topics is that there they encompass the most readily identified division of opinion: nearly all of us believe ourselves to be, to some varying extent, good and wise, and yet we are considerably less charitable in assigning these qualities to other people, who, presumably feel the same way regarding themselves and us. The obvious problem, by the numbers, is that we can't all be right, unless the whole essence of goodness or wisdom is simply self-appraisal.

By contrast, a less interesting belief to examine is the widespread moral distaste for murder. In this instance, we again almost certainly feel like our neighbors shouldn't do such a thing, but we also very likely hold ourselves to the same standard. We could all be wrong, of course, but we could also all be right. I am drawn more toward issues on which there is sharp public division, because in these instances, large groups of people (and perhaps everyone) certainly are wrong. Since we're almost certainly ourselves wrong on some of these divided issues, they seem the most useful ideas on which to test ourselves. To sum up: my definition of the fully examined life would require a willingness, in principle, to see the morality of murder as an open question, but one that would follow so many other more interesting questions that we'd likely never get to it.

Now on to religion: this one's considerably trickier. Part of the reason for this is that it's an umbrella covering multiple smaller phenomena and the labels we give them, but that's only part of the problem. Certainly, the size and breadth of the term "religion" gives us more problem than, say, defining the Greater Macedonia Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas (and I swear on a stack of what-you-will that I'm not making that name up), but let's look at another example. "Life" as a term includes bacteria, insects, reptiles, beagles, and philosophy students, but it's expanded size really doesn't make it any fuzzier. With the exception of those contentious viruses, we all know what it is and isn't. The boundary conditions still hold at a very broad level of language. Even in bioethics disputes that are purportedly over life, the definition isn't really at issue: everyone knows, for instance, that a homo sapiens fetus is alive, and by aborting it we are killing something. What we are arguing about is whether it is a human that we are killing. To be frank, if we all stopped killing everything tomorrow, we all starve as soon as the carrion and canned fruit runs out. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, life lives off of life, and there is no evading this inescapable reality. But I digress.

No, religion is difficult to define because it has two major strands that cannot be fully teased apart, yet many choose to identify the term with only one. Is religion right belief (orthodoxy), right conduct (orthopraxis), or both? Since belief and action are mutually constitutive (belief influences action influences belief), even the right answer doesn't solve the problem, but the question itself points out some of the muddle: a "Christian" has been defined as diversely as a Buddhist who coincidentally acts Christ-like to one who interprets the King James Bible as literally as possible. Since several billion people fall somewhere between these two points, imagine how much harder it is to accurately define all religions as opposed to just one, without creating a definition that is so broad as to be meaningless.

That long preface aside, I think it is safe to say that no, a textual literalist of any religious tradition cannot, by my first definition, lead a fully examined life. If you can't give a reasonable answer to: "What would talk you out of the seven-day creation 6,000 years ago idea?", then you value dogma over examination. That's not an insult, because, in theory, dogma may deserve to be valued over examination, but they are , without question, mutually exclusive. We can, of course, substitute in the historical or doctrinal claims of any religious tradition, and I argue the same result: if it's simply not an open question, in principle, no examined life. So, to make an extraordinarily long answer short, no, it isn't possible for a religious person to live an examined life...

...unless, of course, we broaden our definition a bit. Although the doctrinaire definition of religion covers the huge majority of religious believers, it also doesn't cover millions more. There are deists, pantheists, scriptural allegorists, universalists, and many others that appreciate the literary and inspirational merit of scripture and the communal value of religion and yet have curiously individual notions of the supernatural. Are these people religious? Since these worldviews are perfectly compatible with the deepest level of skepticism, then "religion" in this sense doesn't seem to preclude the examined life, as I have defined it, at all.

But then we are led into a related problem: who has the authority to define religiousness? Can the designation be assigned and revoked by others, or is self-report the standard to which we should adhere? Because at the end of the day, a definition of religion that no one recognizes or accepts renders the question meaningless.

Perhaps, then, it is finally best to think of religion as having a continuum of definitions, all of them partially useful, ranging from vaguely spiritual on the left end to scripturally dogmatic on the right. The closer one gets to the left end of the continuum, the greater the possibility of leading a fully examined life. The benefit of such a scale is that is descriptive rather than quantitative: it substitutes "how are you religious?" for the more common "how religious are you?"