It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and I’ve missed the interactions.
After my mother died last summer, I spent some time remembering and grieving as well as making sure my aging father was well taken care of. Then, completely unexpected, my wife’s father passed away. This was even tougher for all of us because he was very healthy and none of us saw it coming. We all thought he’d be around for at least another 25 years. My wife went through several intense phases of grief and things have slowly gotten back to normal this year.
Somewhere in there, Nate Owens sucked me into an addictive game called Destiny (which has been a lot of fun), and that took up a lot of my time, and then in the middle of January my boss at work moved me into a position where the customers always seem to want things yesterday, so that has been quite a time suck as well.
We’ve been sad about not having my mother and father-in-law around. Our parents were very meaningful to our lives as well as the lives of our children. Their care, love, and good advice will be remembered for the rest of our lives. This is why I don’t agree that there is no meaning if you don’t believe in gods. There is always temporal meaning because the whole idea of gods imparting meaning is gotten from the idea that thinking minds can create meaning – and we are thinking minds. Yes, our human meaning may not be perfect, may not be eternal, and may not be cosmic or objective, but it can still be strikingly beautiful and inspiring. The lives of my mother and my father-in-law were beautiful and inspiring to me and my family.
Which reminds me of a video I saw on Brenda’s blog – When we gift people flowers we don’t give them plastic flowers. We give them real flowers even though real flowers are temporal.
So I have a few questions for my readers:
If you believe that gods exist and you are grateful that they have given you a life that you cherish and enjoy so much, would you stop cherishing and enjoying life if you suddenly found out that gods do not exist? If you used to believe but no longer do, did your value of your life and your loved ones change?
And if you believe that it is good and right to treat others in a loving way, would you stop treating others in a loving way if you suddenly found out that gods do not exist?
I can see that there may be some who would be more lax about treating others kindly if they stopped believing, but do you think one’s entire value system would break down? Mine did not.
It’s been a tough couple of months for me. My mother passed away on July 14th, and I flew my father out to live in our city and I’ve been trying to get him settled at a place where they can properly care for someone with dementia.
My mother was an amazing woman. Mere words are not capable of describing the amount of care and love she showered on all of her family. She was an amazing role model, and many of the ways in which I raise my children come from her example, as well as my father’s.
Things have been very busy and it’s not clear right now how much time I’ll have for blogging. I want to thank everyone who I’ve interacted with through blogging for a great experience, and I hope I can find time in the future to get back in the groove.
I usually don’t post about the concept of Hell because I’d much rather post about ideas that I have a higher chance of changing my mind on. But it’s a concept that should be talked about because many people still believe in the idea and many are haunted by it (most of them believers – at least the ones that are humble enough to realize that they could be wrong about their worldview, or humble enough to realize that because they are human it’s possible that their sincerity of belief may not be pure enough to surpass the level they imagine required).
There are a growing number of believers who have more nuanced versions of Hell which aren’t really all that bad. Some say that Hell is just a description of what life on earth could be like when we don’t act in kind and loving ways. The Universalists say that Hell is a place that will be empty because all roads, no matter what, lead to a God who loves and cares for all of his created beings. A growing number of intelligent, well-studied believers who hold strongly to a high view of scripture have found that annihilationism is strongly supported after a proper in-depth study of the original language and context of the bible (my own view related to the bible is shown in the comments that Travis and I wrote on this post.) And some believe that everyone will always be able to choose love/heaven, even after death, and that the only people who will be left in Hell are the ones who eternally want to remain completely hateful and don’t want anything to do with love.
But there are still some who believe in the idea of eternal torment for all who don’t choose a certain belief before death. The concept of Hell comes in different forms – real fire, some kind of physical pain, or just the complete lack of love – all things which are horrific ideas. I can’t make any sense of an all-powerful being who creates creatures and loves all of them yet will allow any of them to be in a place like that (and who even knew that would happen before creating them). There is another idea that I can’t make sense of – the idea that even though this type of Hell is real, we shouldn’t think about it, and we should only concentrate on the fact that a God exists who loves us and wants us to be with him.
Imagine if I had proposed to my wife like this:
Me: Honey I love and care about you so much and I want for the two of us to be together forever. Will you marry me?
Potential wife: Um, why is there a man pointing a gun at me?
Me: Oh honey, why are you concentrating on insignificant side issues like that? All you need to do is concentrate on how much I love and care about you. The choice is completely yours – will you marry me?
Potential wife: No seriously, what’s the guy with the gun for?
Me: It’s totally not important, but if you really want to know – he will kill you if you say no. But again it’s so insignificant when you realize how incredibly strong my love is for you and how much I care about you and wish the best for you. Will you marry me?
Potential wife: Um, uh… oh, I just realized I forgot something really important in the car outside – I’ll be right back to answer your question after I get it.
I think the story speaks for itself.
I feared the idea of eternal sadness for many years: when I was first introduced to it by my friend in high school, while I was a Christian with doubts, and many years afterward. If you still fear this idea I recommend this post, as well as Charles’ post. The first link is a more general post related to angst about ultimate questions, but Charles’ post goes into specifics of the Hell concept. His post and all of the comments there are very instructional and helpful, and you can learn more about my own thoughts on the concept of Hell by reading my own comments there.
I’ve been calling my wife Mrs. H online lately to honor her request for anonymity. I mentioned that to her the other night and she said, “ah yes, I’m Mrs. HiggsBoson”. I love being married to someone crazy about science.
Anyway, we were sitting around the table the other night and my daughter asked us if we were 100% sure about something (I can’t remember the topic). At the same time both HiggsBoson and myself quickly said that there is very little we can be 100% sure of. Here’s some of the dialogue:
Daughter: Is there anything we can be 100% sure of?
HiggsBoson: Some things, like I am 100% sure you are my daughter.
Howie: Ah, but what if one of us is just a brain in a vat?
HiggsBoson: Oh quit it with the crazy philosophy stuff will you? [while my wife loves science, she isn’t a huge fan of philosophy].
Howie: The kids know what I’m talking about.
Son: What’s a brain in a vat?
Howie: That’s the idea that your body doesn’t exist, but that all of your thoughts are just generated by a brain in a jar somewhere.
Son: Oh yeah, I’ve thought of that before.
Daughter: me too!
Both of our kids seem to share my interest in deep life questions (especially my son). My wish is for them to never go through the pain that I went through in my search for answers. Right now they remind me of how I was when I was young – a time where thinking about those things was just plain fun! I’m glad I decided to return to that perspective. Our children will know that the unknown is not worth the worry. They will also grow up knowing that their mom and I don’t worry about some invisible mind somewhere that gets offended if we don’t see the need to search for it. And most importantly, they will know that if they end up finding the concept of a deity comforting to them that we will still love them exactly the same even though we don’t see things the same way.
Dear HiggsBoson: Thank you for keeping some balance in our family and for keeping your 3 philosophers from going to crazy town. I’m so glad philosophy doesn’t float your boat, because we desperately need that balance in our family. And I’m also glad we met after I was done with my stint with religion and also done with my desperate searching period, because if we had met before that we likely wouldn’t be together. And that would have been a crying shame since we fit together like 2 puzzle pieces (oh, and by the way, thanks for the huge jigsaw puzzle you guys gave me on my birthday – I’m enjoying it quite a bit). Have a great Mother’s Day!
And to all my readers who are mothers: I hope you have a great Mothers Day. Maybe you’ll find the following video as heartwarming as HiggsBoson and I found it:
This post is related to my previous one on morality. The following is a comment by a theist on another blog that I saw a while back (here’s the link to the comment):
THE God, who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, is Himself the standard by which ALL things are measured. That means when he commands Joshua to kill every man, women, child and beast in Canaan that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. It means that when he causes Israel to eat their own children as reported in Jeremiah 19 that that is PERFECTLY holy righteous, just and good. It means that if He has decreed all of the horrific human misery, suffering and death in all of history that that is PERFECTLY holy righteous, just and good. It means that if He has decreed the existence of billions of human beings for the expressed purpose of casting them into the lake of fire in judgement for sin that He also decreed that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. It means that if He has purposed that everything we consider to be pointless evil, immorally unjust and unthinkably unfair shall be so ordered by divine mechanisms known only to Himself, to His own glory for reasons sufficient unto Himself that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good.
It also means that His not caring one bit how you (or I) feel about that is most assuredly PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. I sleep like a baby knowing that every time I hear about some gut wrenching blood curdling act of barbaric depravity that my Father God has from eternity seen fit to assign purpose to it that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. IF IT WERE MY OWN FAMILY? You ask? Most ESPECIALLY then would I fall to my knees and worship Him knowing that evil has NOT triumphed, but that a PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just, good AND LOVING God who calls me brother, bride and son though I myself belong in that lake of fire will receive honor and glory by my praising His name while the world loses it’s collective mind. EveryTHING and everyONE belongs to HIM. His exaltation and glory IS the purpose for all that is. No more PERFECTLY purpose could ever exist.
I don’t think any of my theist readers hold this viewpoint, but obviously there are people out there who do. How many I’m not sure, but I wonder if it is higher than we would expect in some parts of the world.
I’d like to hear what my readers think of the above quoted comment. Please offer your thoughts no matter what your worldview is.
A while back I wrote a series of posts on morality and I want to attempt to tie some things up as well as respond to some common things I see people say online about non-theistic morality (some of which came up in my post on meaning). I’ve only scratched the surface on this subject so I’m sure some of the details are not quite right.
Different Meta-ethical Views
While it’s much more complicated, in general I like to categorize the different meta-ethical views into the following:
Supernatural Moral Realism (one example is Divine Command Theory): the favorite position for the theist, although I’ve found it interesting that some theists reside in the other 3 categories (mainly the next one) usually in addition to this category.
Non-Natural Moral Realism: some atheist philosophers believe that there are moral properties which exist necessarily somehow as brute facts of reality (kind of like the law of non-contradiction). Shelly Kagan, Erik Wielenberg, Russ Shafer-Landau (video lecture), Michael Martin, and Keith Parsons are just some atheists who have expressed this idea. In this clip atheist Shelly Kagan describes his own views:
You can see the debate where this clip is taken from here. I highly recommend this debate to anyone interested in the topic of morality as it relates to atheism. Kagan’s 20 minute opening is especially well thought out. Richard Swinburne and Robert Merrihew Adamsare examples of theists who agree that there are moral properties which exist apart from gods.
Natural Moral Realism: what I like to call practical moral realism, although that’s probably not precise. I’ll actually use a quote from a theist I met online to capture this:
I can’t be the only one here who notices that the just world is a world where I can be happy whereas the unjust world is a world where I could only be miserable. If I’m treated unjustly, I’ll be unhappy; and if I’m stuck in a situation where I must behave unjustly in order to get by — I’ll be unhappy about that!
The idea here is that there are moral truths that are “normative” (i.e. true for everyone) due to the fact that all humans share the same desire for contentment, and having values such as integrity and compassion help us realize that desire. Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Carrier (video lecture), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Sam Harris are all atheists who fall in this camp (with variances among their views).
Moral Anti-realism: the view that there are no objective moral values. Nietzsche is commonly referenced in this category. Some modern proponents are Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, and Michael Ruse. It’s very rare to find theists in this category but there are a small percentage.
And these 2 diagrams show you that meta-ethics is even more complicated than I’ve made it out to be:
So Where Do I Stand?
I see all 4 options above as possibilities and I’m fine with all of them. Personally, if there is a god or force or whatever that truly represents pure goodness and kindness (the parts that at least seem to be universal properties contained in that) then I’m all for it. If it is a personal being then it’s more than welcome in my home for a cup of tea or whatever it likes to partake in. I’d love to work with it to help make the world a better place to live in. If living in my heart floats it’s boat then have at it. I’d love for it to do kind things through me and make me a better, more loving and caring person. It’s just that some versions of this god as described by the traditional monotheistic religions do not line up with what is commonly understood as goodness, and the world also seems to operate as if it is a godless one.
I explained here why non-natural moral realism seems more plausible to me than supernatural moral realism. But if you forced me to bet on which of the 4 options is true I’d probably say it’s some mix of 3 and 4 which I sort of talked about here. This seems most closely matched to Massimo Pigliucci’s views.
Now pick whatever meta-ethical viewpoint you want from the above list – it doesn’t matter which one represents reality to me. Either way genocide, slavery, an eternal hell, pedophilia, rape, etc. all go against my moral senses. The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter. The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.
– Our moral senses cannot be explained without God
There seems to be some evidence against this. Read this.
– Atheists have no right to make any claims about right or wrong
First of all, watch the video above again to see why this is misguided. It may be a more valid objection to replace the word “atheists” with “moral anti-realists”.
If a moral anti-realist is being punched in the face for no reason at all, do you expect them to respond with “that’s cool, I don’t believe in objective morality, so if you want to punch me I have no criticism of it”? Obviously, being in pain, they would have something to say about it. Obviously they could say “that hurts”, and “I don’t like that” without contradicting their anti-realist stance. However, If they said “that’s wrong” it would begin to sound contradictory to their beliefs. I have a caveat here though – it’s not contradictory if by saying “that’s wrong” they simply mean that it’s wrong in the sense that the majority agrees with them that it’s wrong to cause pain. Also could they say it is “unkind”? I believe they could. By the general definition that humans ascribe to the word “unkind” it fits without someone believing that there is some objective “unkindness” property set in place somewhere outside of human minds. It just fits the definition that the vast majority of humans ascribe to the words “wrong” and “unkind”. All words have some vagueness about them. But I do empathize some when the moral realist begins to see a bit of a contradiction when moral anti-realists use the word “wrong”.
– Atheists are being fake when they criticize the Old Testament for it’s moral horrors (see this comment)
Again, for atheists who are moral realists this objection doesn’t make sense. Brandon (who wrote the linked comment) mentioned Sam Harris, but Harris is a moral realist so it doesn’t really fit. Brandon may not agree that Harris has a valid reason to be a realist but that is beside the point – if he is a realist he is not being fake. If you’re unable to see how a meta-ethical viewpoint different from your own could have validity to it that’s fine, but just know that it won’t stop me from speaking against atrocities in the bible such as genocide and slavery.
Now the question does become more interesting for moral anti-realists. But even an anti-realist may be humble enough to see that their view may be wrong and that morality really is objective. If one was trying to evaluate the Christian worldview then in the process they would try to take on the viewpoint of objective morality. But then they become faced with the dilemma of these horrific passages which go so strongly against the moral senses of practically all human cultures. So even an anti-realist can see how these passages go against the morality that the Christian worldview is trying to uphold. They could also feel that these passages are very clearly harmful to human society and that could go against their own desires for a better world. Anti-realists are just as capable of having empathy as anyone else.
– Atheism make a conversation about morality impossible
Topics in morality are discussed many hours of every day in ethics courses at universities across the entire world, very often without appeal to gods. Actually it can be more of a conversation stopper to simply say “this book that I believe is the truth is the sole authority of morality”. If the other person doesn’t see the book as an authority the conversation is over.
Lately the following has been a response to theists I’ve been giving to express my own feelings about this subject: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain if there are moral truths that exist or not. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say that you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!”.
Where do you stand regarding objective morality? Do you think you could place your views somewhere within the 4 listed above?
In the video, Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, makes a connection with a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s by singing Christian songs. I think this made an even deeper impact on me given that I know of the aversion to Christianity that exists in the Jewish community. This was very clear to me growing up in a Jewish home, and I also found it to be true, albeit to a lesser extent, in a more liberal Jewish congregation I attended several years ago. There’s a lot of history causing that aversion, but happily I believe it is dissipating.
To me this is just one example of someone crossing over the boundaries of religion to make a beautiful connection with another human being. I have always highly valued all human beings no matter what their beliefs are and my beliefs about ultimate questions have never changed that. This was one of the things that attracted me to Christianity back in college – I believed that it represented true goodness and that it matched this value that I had within my heart. That strong value didn’t go away after I left Christianity though, and no matter what my beliefs are about the existence of gods, that value of mine will remain unchanged. To me this is an important part of what morality is all about.
About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title. In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable). I thought it was great for several reasons:
It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist. A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.
I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation. If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.
So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?
Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory. These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense. Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”
I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible. Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.
The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes. The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views). You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:
So I’m Still Skeptical
Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist. Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses. There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea. I see this as a valid stance to take. But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists: “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.” Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory. And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option. If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option. The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.
Is the Question Even Answerable?
My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number. Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable. “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved. However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.
But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.
My 9-year-old daughter had been waiting for several months for this moment. We planned it for the winter school break, and when it came she first decided against it. But early this morning my sweet baby girl changed her mind and walked into the mall scared out of her mind. Her mother, aunt, brother and I were all there by her side but she was still thinking about turning right around. I was so proud that she went through with it and now she has 2 beautiful earrings in those freshly pierced ears of hers. She was so brave! She’s been running around the house all day giddier than a girl on the first night of Chanukah.
I believe it’s moments like these that happen all the time in our lives that rise so high above any topic that I’ve ever written and ever will write about on this blog.
This is just a little bit of a teaser for the review I’m trying to write of “Why Is There Anything”, by Matthew Rave. Jim Holt’s solution in the TEDx video above is a bit different from Matthew Rave’s, but they are both critical of Lawrence Krauss’ solution. I recommend giving it a watch. While I don’t really see the question really being answered in the video, I thought Jim Holt had a lot of interesting things to say and he was actually quite entertaining to listen to.
Ever since I was a young boy I loved thinking about deep questions like this, and I know I’m not alone in that, although I may be in the minority. I remember connecting with a friend of mine in junior high school regarding the “end point” of space. Our other friends thought we were a bit strange. We both found the concept fascinating as well as disconcerting. If space had an end then what was beyond that end point? And the idea that space continues infinitely was equally troubling to our finite minds.
It was this probing philosophical mind along with my guilt prone Jewish background that made me ripe for the Christian worldview to grab hold of me a few years after that. Christianity was like a carrot which had all the answers to these probing questions. But as my years as a Christian progressed, trouble brewed in paradise. It became clearer that the “answers” given were more about tradition passed down from people a long time ago who lived in a superstitious time, rather than answers backed by empirical analysis. They were simply revealed just like the other religions had their revelations. So the Christian answers to the probing questions that all of us have not only were derived without careful and critical analysis, but those answers then brought up many more questions. The carrot began to look more and more like just a painting of a carrot. Why is there anything at all? – because there is an all-perfect all-knowing God, and the existence of that God doesn’t require explanation – and if you think it does you just aren’t thinking correctly, even though it seems like the existence of that God would require even more of an explanation. I’m sorry, but the mystery is still there.
I’m growing convinced that Buddha had some of the best perspectives when it comes to these metaphysical type questions. It’s related to this video I posted before:
Just like I mentioned in the previous post with that video, I encourage continued exploration and thinking about these questions. Obviously I continue to explore myself. But I also see it as important to deal with the possibility that some of these questions may very well be unanswerable. None of the solutions to the question of why is there anything seem satisfactory to me, especially the all-knowing God answer. This question may just be out of the realm of human thought.
Oh, and totally unrelated – have any of you found a good antidote for writer’s block besides just forcing myself to begin? Is there any kind of music that might get the juices flowing and help me clear my mind to be able to get the stuff in my mind into words?