Meaningful Sadness

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.

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47 thoughts on “Meaningful Sadness

  1. These are good questions, and the honest answer must be: nothing at all would change. Now, how honest a theist is willing to be, well, that’s another question.

  2. If you used to believe but no longer do, did your value of your life and your loved ones change?

    I’m remembering back to many years ago, so perhaps my memory is hazy. I’d say that the value of my life and that of others increased. That’s because the self-loathing, the thought that we were all miserable sinners, went away.

  3. Good to see you back at it, Howie. Regarding the question, I think I developed a greater appreciation for everything associated with this life, largely as a result of the realization that it was the whole enchilada. I’ve put a lot more thought into how to make the most of my time than I ever did as a Christian.

  4. Sorry for your loss Howie and good to see you around.
    I used to believe and no longer do. Those people that I liked I still do, those I didn’t like I still don’t but more importantly, I have thought more about meaning in life in the last few years than I did in the two decades of believing

  5. As others here have said, it’s good to see you back again, Howie. As to believing and not-believing, then it seems that in both there’s no more than an inhabitation of a mere thought-construct, and it’s this that is not clearly understood on the whole as futile arguments rage about whether or not the gods exist, religious cosmologies obtain, soul-possession is true, and so forth. If we see thought as thought, and not as inhabited by ‘me’ or ‘you’, then this has a pacifying effect, and we become more harmless, more cherishing of life and more loving towards all beings. These things rest within us prior to all thought and belief, as many have found in direct experience.

  6. Hi Victoria! It’s great to see you as well. I’m doing a happy dance too – I like dancing. 🙂 Has the weather been ok for you in your new neck of the woods?

  7. Hey John. And I think if their honest answer is that their value system would change then it probably says something about their character.

  8. Hey Neil – that’s a good point about the whole miserable sinner outlook. More modern (or progressive, or whatever they call it nowadays) churches are trying to change their focus away from that but it’s hard to get away from if the bible is your central go to book.

  9. Hey Travis – good to see you as well. Yes, exactly – if you watch that video on Brenda’s blog post that I linked to you’ll see that Tyson made pretty much the same point about life being more valuable given that it is temporal. I was glad to see you decided on doing a post a month on your blog. I’m hoping things at work will slow down soon so I can free up time to check them out.

  10. Thanks Mak – glad to see you as well. It’s ironic how a life outside of religion can bring more meaning to our lives even though religion is supposed to be all about meaning.

  11. Hi Hariod. It’s good to see you as well. I’ve missed your comments and posts. They are always so thoughtful and filled with deep insight. They always make my brain go into overtime which is a good thing. The world could use more of that pacifying effect you mention.

  12. Howie! So GOOD to have you back among us! 😀

    Your comment, I can see that there may be some who would be more lax about treating others kindly if they stopped believing, made me think of the many who do believe yet are very “lax” about treating others kindly. It makes me wonder if perhaps it revolves around the person’s personality rather than their faith.

    Condolences on your losses.

  13. My condolences to you and your family, Howie.

    Many Christians have been guilty of demoting meaningful sadness because of afterlife beliefs. They fail to remember “Blessed are those who mourn” and the fact that Jesus wept even knowing he would raise Lazarus. Was it irrational of Jesus to weep? No! Just because we have deeply held convictions about the afterlife does not give us the right to demote terrestrial concerns, the greatest of these being loss of a loved one.

  14. Hi Nan! I’m glad to be back and it’s good to see you. Your thoughts resonate with me quite a bit. For myself, when I converted to Christianity it was because I felt it was a belief that aligned itself with virtue, integrity and goodness and I’m sure there are other believers like that. But with some believers it seems they follow because they believe there is some supremely powerful god who they have to follow no matter what that god tells them to do. For them it’s might makes right and more about fear than anything else – in that case it wouldn’t be surprising if they became more lax about ethics if they stopped believing.

  15. Hey Brandon – thank you very much for your kind words. What you mention is a very refreshing perspective against the backdrop of other more fundamentalist perspectives.

  16. In my experience, my values and sense of meaning in life didn’t drastically change, but there were some shifts. For example, I used to be very hung up on doing the officially sanctioned Right Thing even if it made me/others miserable and had no obvious benefit, because afterlife. Now my morality is very grounded in the present, and of course the foreseeable earthly future. Similar shifts happened with my sense of meaning.

    I do remember the transition from an external, projected center of values to an internal, personal center of values was hard, and scary. But the end result was about as drastic as changing the curtains on a window.

  17. Hi Lane. That’s a good point. There some things which change. For example, when I was a Christian I thought we all had some moral obligation to seek an ultimate creator God. But obviously that is no longer part of my value system. There were also parts of my morality as a believer that I accepted even though they didn’t seem quite right. My values of integrity, kindness and love toward all human beings never changed though.

  18. Good to hear from you Howie.

    My transition to non-belief was fairly gradual, so it’s hard to say if there was much of any change that wasn’t already accounted for by other factors. As others have noted, when I was younger, I worried a lot about doing what I was supposed to do. Now I just focus on what I can do and bending things closer to happiness than suffering.

  19. Hey Mike. Good to see you. It’s that desire to reduce suffering which is at the core of what never changed for me no matter what my worldview.

  20. Victoria – Glad to hear the weather out there is so nice. I’ve only driven through those coastal areas by the gulf a handful of times so I wasn’t sure.

  21. Hi Howie

    I’m sorry for the difficult times that you and your family are having.

    You ask some great questions. I have thought about related questions over the years. Let me start by saying that I believe we have a sort of structure to our minds/beliefs. Certain beliefs depend on, reinforce. or even cause friction with other beliefs. But we have lots and lots of beliefs. Some beliefs are more fundamental than other beliefs.

    So I might believe that my daughter has a carrots in her lunch. Maybe just because I saw my wife putting carrots in a little baggie that she would normally put in her lunch. But its possible that she doesn’t have carrots in her lunch. (my wife was putting the carrots in the baggie for her own lunch perhaps) This is a trivial belief and losing it does not really change much. So if you were to ask what if you found out no carrots exist in her lunch, well it wouldn’t effect much.

    Now I hold other beliefs that are less trivial like, I believe Australia exists. I also believe Montana exists. Now if you were to ask “what would change if you found out Austrailia and Montana does not exist?” I would be a bit harder pressed to answer. Now a similar question might be “what if you were raised muslim by a strict muslim family in Iran, how would that effect your beliefs?” At that point I would likely have to say I really don’t know what I would believe.

    So here you are asking me what if my noetic structure changed not as trivially as the carrots, but I still think it would be a substantial change. And since it is one I have thought about quite a bit it might be easier to answer. So we assume that God does not exist and that I found this out. If he doesn’t exist but I don’t find that out I will live pretty much the same right? 🙂

    I think I can say I would almost certainly change my view about how can know what objective morality requires if it exists. I think I would most likely almost entirely agree with Richard Joyce.

    http://personal.victoria.ac.nz/richard_joyce/onlinepapers.html

    That is I would highly doubt any objective morality exists in reality, and if it did exist I would not believe we had any reliable way of knowing what it was. I believe the evidence is pretty strong that our understanding of morality comes from emotional centers in our brain.

    https://trueandreasonable.co/2015/02/03/emotion-reason-and-truth/

    If nothing supernatural happened in the creation of those emotional centers I would find it impossible to believe those emotional centers would actually track objective moral truth. I would view our strong emotional pulls to believe some things are “right and wrong” as evolutionary baggage.

    So I would definitely lose all hope that I could reliably follow any objective moral truth. So what then? I do not think I could just say well I will just pretend my urges for right and wrong are correct and live my life that way. Pretending those plastic flowers really do smell good. But maybe I would. Would I teach my children they have moral obligations when I really don’t think they do? I would likely believe that the honest answer at that point would be to say that all the emotions related to “moral senses” are just a bunch of bs. But the religious part of me says that would be horrible to say that to my children. So really at this point I don’t know. I think the most honest answer I could give is that we would have changed my noetic structure so much that it is difficult for me to say what I would believe at that point.

    I would also say that I would also be saddened to know that so much injustice would never be addressed. But then again at a certain level I would not believe there is actual justice. So I think for a while I would likely deal with some cognitive dissonance while I try to sort things out.

    “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?”

    It would certainly change things. I see all sorts of injustice and now believe that there will be a day in court – so to speak. With no God our day in court disappears. Lots of innocent people died and that’s just it. But again is there true justice and injustice or is it just a bunch of make believe.

    “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?”
    Treating people in a loving way usually makes me glad. So I don’t think I would stop doing that. But of course there are certain times with certain people when I am not so moved be so loving. Now I believe I have an obligation (Christ’s Command) to be loving to those people. And so I work to try to be more loving even when it doesn’t come naturally. I don’t think I would believe any such obligation exists anymore. I can’t say exactly how that would change me. Would I teach my children they have that obligation when I don’t believe in that obligation anymore? What if I was never taught I had a moral obligation to love others and that I therefore “should” find ways to love them even when it’s hard? I think these are questions involving counterfactuals that are difficult to answer.

    Sorry for the long post but I could talk about these questions forever.

  22. Pingback: Evidence of Objective Moral Realism | True and Reasonable

  23. Hi Joe. Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words of condolence.

    I’ve had very similar thoughts to yours even though there may be some points of disagreement between us. There’s a whole bunch to chew on here, so for now I’ll divert a little from the main point of my post because some of the things you wrote peeked my interest in a different direction.

    Some of the other believers on my blog have presented the moral argument for the existence of God as one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of God. Do you see it as a compelling argument as well?

  24. Howie

    I believe we do in fact think in similar ways so I am not at all surprised you have considered many of the points I raised.

    “Some of the other believers on my blog have presented the moral argument for the existence of God as one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of God. Do you see it as a compelling argument as well?”

    Some arguments I think are very compelling. Some not so much. As for what I find compelling, it is a collection of various arguments. To some extent the real workhorse portion of my argument is argued by two atheists (Richard Joyce and Sharon Street) one Christian (Mark Linnville) and one Deist (Thomas Nagel). I guess if we include myself it would be two Christians but I am not a professional philosopher.

    The issues they deal with are beyond the issues resolved by The Euthyphro dilemma. And I do agree the Euthyphro dilemma does demonstrate how objective morality can exist without God. But there are still at least two big issues. 1) how would we know what this objective morality requires. (this is the big argument that the 4 philosophers I note above argue. And 2) do we have any reason to think objective morality is true. What evidence could we have for it? I address that in my last blog.

    http://trueandreasonable.co/2016/05/10/evidence-of-objective-moral-realism/

    The first problem raised by the 4 professional philosophers is a bigger problem. But the issue I raise about evidence might be an issue for some atheists depending on how important they think having evidence for their beliefs is.

    There are some other problems that I have not articulated yet. Overall there is one big problem as well as several smaller problems that make atheism untenable if I want to hold onto anything close to my moral beliefs.

    BTW:
    Another problem beyond the meta-ethical ones would be the fact that it would seem to follow that nothing would be sacred if there was no God. Human life would not be sacred. That is why I currently think killing innocent people is wrong.

    Sure atheists can adopt various other reasons to explain why they think killing innocent people is wrong. Peter Singer has his approach. Some say things like they want to live a world where that doesn’t happen so they feel safe, or whatever. I’m not sure that is a reason to believe it is wrong.

    In sum, I can only say that those rationales never really worked for me. The reason I think killing innocent people is a horrendous wrong is because human life is a sacred gift from God. Say what you want about how “Christian” Nazis, it is clear they did not view all human life as a sacred gift from God. Would I adopt some other rational if I found out God did not exist? Maybe but it’s hard to say what it would be at this time.

    Sorry for another long post. But you know the questions you ask call for long answers. I think we could get all this sorted out quicker if we just had a few nights at a pub.

  25. I agree with most of what you write – I think the main difference would be in how strongly we feel the arguments you mention prove their conclusion.

    I’m still not clear about your view of the moral argument for the existence of God. C.S. Lewis lays out one in Mere Christianity, and William Lane Craig is famous for using it in his debates. Do you find that argument compelling, or are you unfamiliar with that argument?

  26. Hi Howie

    Incoming! Another long post.

    I like some things that WLC says and argues. I think he should give any atheist who is new to this topic some reasons to think about their position but ultimately I don’t think the way he frames his main argument is convincing. I did a blog where I explain why I think his response does not capture the full import of the Euthyphro dilemma here:
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/07/02/euthyphro-dilemma-and-william-lane-craigs-response/

    As far as CS Lewis I also think he offers decent reasons that should give an atheist pause. But I read Mere Christianity a while ago and just for enjoyment purposes so I haven’t really done any rigorous analysis of his arguments.

    So what argument am I talking about. Let me start by saying that what I argue for is a debunking argument for the justification of our moral beliefs. We can assume moral realism is true even if God does not exist. But to bastardize an analogy that Richard Joyce often uses: what if we determined what moral truths that “moral reality” dictated by using tasseography. Tasseography involves the studying patterns tea leaves make when they fall and then drawing conclusions about the world based on that. So in this case someone by studying the patterns of how tea leaves fall they would then conclude “yes abortion is morally ok after all.” Or “No homosexual conduct is in fact immoral.”

    Of course, we would say that is absurd to form our moral beliefs in this way. Why? Because the patterns that tea leaves make when they fall has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the moral truths claimed. There is no connection between the moral truth and the tea leaf patterns. Put another way, the tea leaf patterns do not “track” the truth of the moral claims.

    It’s not that it is impossible someone might actually arrive at some true beliefs this way though right. I mean just by chance they may match up with some moral truths. But the whole process is completely unreliable so thinking it yields truth is irrational.

    So many argue that evolution process would yield the same sort of unreliable beliefs about moral truths because it does not track or have any connection to moral truth. It only tracks adaptation – survival and reproduction.

    Here is how Sharon Street puts it in a paper.
    http://fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/1177/DarwinianDilemma.pdf

    Richard Joyce explains his version in his book The Evolution of Morality:
    http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Morality-Life-Mind-Philosophical/dp/0262101122
    But also talks about his views in some of his papers that are available online here:
    http://personal.victoria.ac.nz/richard_joyce/onlinepapers.html

    These articles are for professional journals so they might be pretty hard reading for someone not familiar with the terminology and concepts. I am familiar with most of what they are talking and would be happy to help you or anyone else who wants to understand this argument.

    Here is a blog by an Atheist responding to Mark Linnville.
    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=1261
    I offer this as it is a decent writing to get people into the topic. The issue I am focused on is the epistemological argument. It is worth noting that Luke Muehlhauser leaves off by saying maybe our moral beliefs are not directly related to evolution and might be corrected by science or other processes that are truth finding.

    That is where I pretty much take up the argument. I argue that although science and empirical experiments might be able to correct faulty scientific views, they can not do this with morality. That is because moral “wrongness” has no empirical indicia. I.e., We don’t see hear touch taste or smell it. So we would evolutionary processes and science would never have access to these truths.

    Let me sketch out some premises and conclusions for my own version of the argument:
    P1) The process of natural selection (and science) is blind (insensitive) to concepts/truths/facts that never have material or empirical manifestations or indicia.

    P2) Moral evil is a fact/concept/truth that has no material or empirical manifestations or indicia.

    C1) Therefore the process of natural selection (and science btw) is blind (insensitive) to moral evil.
    C2) Since natural selection and Science are blind (insensitive) to moral evil then neither process will form moral beliefs that reliably track moral truths.

    I go more in depth into this argument here:
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/02/24/a-problem-with-the-reliability-of-moral-beliefs/

    See also the comments where travis asks some good questions which allows me to illustrate what I mean further.

    https://trueandreasonable.co/2015/02/03/emotion-reason-and-truth/

    I also talk about the argument in your comment section here:
    https://truthiselusive.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/morality-without-gods/#comment-4043

  27. Hi Joe,

    I’m pretty sure I understand the gist of the argument, and again my points of disagreement with that argument may not be enough to quibble over right now (maybe later).

    So then is it fair to say that you don’t believe that the subject of morality can be used in any way as evidence for the existence of an ultimate “God”?

    It sounds like you don’t believe there is any evidence for objective moral truth. Is that correct? I think that could be challenged and I wouldn’t put it that way, but I personally would say that I don’t feel I have enough justification to claim that I know there are objective moral truths. As much as I don’t like it, I lean toward believing that morality is only generated by the dynamics of society (which can be extremely strong) along with empathy as well as a desire for human flourishing which is pretty much present in all human beings. In that sense I tend to call morality quasi-objective (my own term) due to this universal desire of humans. I’d go further and say that this lack of solid evidence for objective morals is actually one of many reasons why I don’t believe an ultimate God of morality exists. It isn’t a contributing factor to rule out other kinds of gods, but there are other reasons for doubting that as well.

  28. Hi Howie

    I will try to be shorter and answer your questions.

    “So then is it fair to say that you don’t believe that the subject of morality can be used in any way as evidence for the existence of an ultimate “God”?”

    I think it would be more accurate to say that I believe the subject of morality can be a reason to believe in God. Strong arguments can be made from our understanding of morality can lead to the conclusion “Therefore it is rational to believe in God.”

    “It sounds like you don’t believe there is any evidence for objective moral truth. Is that correct?”

    No. Here is a brief argument:

    1)If the Christian God exists then objective morality exists

    2) Therefore evidence for a Christian God is also evidence for objective morality

    3) Miracles recorded in Scripture are evidence for the Christian God.

    4) Therefore miracles recorded in Scripture are evidence for objective morality.

    Now its true that if someone is not open to the possibility that a Christian God exists then this line of thought will not work for them. But a muslim could probably use the same formula. But I don’t think an atheist would have any evidence for objective morality.

    I just blogged on this a 2 days ago:
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2016/05/10/evidence-of-objective-moral-realism/

    “…. I personally would say that I don’t feel I have enough justification to claim that I know there are objective moral truths. As much as I don’t like it, I lean toward believing that morality is only generated by the dynamics of society….”

    That is a reasonable approach. I appreciate your trepidation in adopting that position it demonstrates you recognize it is not all sunshine and unicorns.

    In light of the moral argument the 4 philosophers I mention (and I have respect for all of their intellects) all go in 4 different directions. Richard Joyce is a moral nihilist (although he dislikes that term I use it here because it is better known that the term “error theorist” which means the same thing) Linville is a Christian. (this allows him to hold onto real morality) Thomas Nagel doesn’t go full on Christianity or any other religion but in light of the argument says there must be something more at work than simply evolution and as I recall is at least open to something supernatural at work in our creation. (this allows him to hold onto real morality) Sharon Street basically adopts your approach of relativism.

    My problem with that approach was pretty well summed up by Russ Schaefer Landau:
    “Nihilists believe that there are no moral truths. Subjectivists believe that moral truth is created by each individual. Relativists believe that moral truth is a social construct. These three theories share the view that, in ethics, we make it all up. ” Page 11 Whatever Happened to Good and Evil.

    I am unwilling to live my life based on what I know to be make believe.

  29. Hey Joe,

    I am unwilling to live my life based on what I know to be make believe.

    I greatly appreciate that viewpoint and can entirely relate as you know, because that is the reason I don’t claim to believe that any gods exist. I’d probably use the phrase “prefer not to live my life…” rather than “unwilling to live my life…” because in certain circumstances I may be ok taking sugar pills if it healed me by the placebo effect – of course if I knew about it, then it wouldn’t work though! 😉 Travis had an interesting post once about considering the idea of trying to make oneself believe in an all loving God for the placebo effect. If this could work I would at least consider it, but I still don’t like the idea of trying to fool myself into changing my beliefs about what is real and true. Knowing what is real seems like the best approach to life.

    But I also want to say that my choosing to act in moral (maybe ethical is the better word) ways is not choosing to live my life based on something make believe. I’ll detail several reasons why that is later on because I still have some questions for you.

    I think I understand your view now on the moral argument related to God – you don’t use Craig and Lewis’ approach of “morality exists therefore God exists”. Yours is kind of the reverse, which is what I suspected but wasn’t sure.

    This is a really a good discussion and hopefully you’ll continue along. You are right – there are tons of things I could write as well and the pub sounds like a good idea. 🙂 Blogging has other benefits though – like giving me the chance to think things over before spitting them out.

    We’ve almost come back to the point of my original post. One question for now though – Joe, I’m sure you’ve given some thought about why you choose to follow the God you believe exists. Why do you choose to follow?

  30. Don’t want to break up the train of thought going on here between you and Joe, Howie. I’ve had to skim the last few comments, but it’s great stuff so far! I hope to come back and read it more thoroughly soon.

    Really, I just wanted to say sorry for missing this when you first posted it! For some reason, I don’t seem to be getting email notifications for your posts, so I’m going to try to figure out why. Either way, I’m glad to see you back on your blog, and I thought this was an excellent post.

    Just so you know, this weekend is looking iffy for me with Destiny. I had forgotten, but I’m playing guitar in my cousin’s wedding this weekend, so I’ll be tied up both Friday and Saturday evenings. But I’m almost caught up with work, so I should be back online soon. I’ll text you. 🙂

  31. No worries Nate. This weekend won’t work for me either because my brother is coming to visit us. I’m looking forward to some Destiny soon though. I’m a bit stuck because the higher challenges need at least 2 high light level players (probably 3). I’m finally crawling out of the dump they piled on me at work also. It’s a big relief because it’s been tough since the middle of January.

  32. Cool, glad I won’t leave you hanging this weekend. Maybe we can wrangle a third player some time next week and get our groove on. 🙂

  33. Hi Howie,
    I said:
    “I am unwilling to live my life based on what I know to be make believe.”

    “I greatly appreciate that viewpoint and can entirely relate as you know, because that is the reason I don’t claim to believe that any gods exist.”
    If I knew God was make believe I wouldn’t follow religion. That’s why in answer to your question there was a change in how I would act if I “found out” God didn’t exist. I took “found out” to mean I somehow knew he didn’t exist.

    “I’d probably use the phrase “prefer not to live my life…” rather than “unwilling to live my life…” because in certain circumstances I may be ok taking sugar pills if it healed me by the placebo effect – of course if I knew about it, then it wouldn’t work though!😉 Travis had an interesting post once about considering the idea of trying to make oneself believe in an all loving God for the placebo effect. If this could work I would at least consider it, but I still don’t like the idea of trying to fool myself into changing my beliefs about what is real and true. Knowing what is real seems like the best approach to life.”
    If we could know what was real it would be the best approach to life. But IMO life isn’t always so clear. There is allot of uncertainty that we need to deal with in the most rational way. I am not sure if you are familiar with the 2 philosophers, Clifford and James. They come at rationality from different perspectives. I blog a bit about these differences here:
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/05/true-and-rational/

    here:
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/14/dealing-with-uncertainty-in-a-rational-way/

    And Here:
    https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/06/30/practical-versus-theoretical-rationality/

    But overall I don’t think the placebo is a fitting analogy here. Instead I view it this way.

    Imagine you are a navy shipbuilder. You spent a good amount of time learning the strengths and weaknesses of different ships. You are in a naval fleet in the middle of the ocean when your fleet is attacked. Your fleet wiped out all the enemy ships but the ships that are still afloat in your own fleet are in bad shape. Let’s say based on your knowledge of the hulls and damage they took you would give all them less than a 4% chance of making it close to shore so you could survive. But some ships might be closer and you are certain they will sink fast. Other ships might be different distances and you might give a 2% or a 1% chance of making it. Now all ships clearly have a less than 50%. So what ship to do you try to swim to? Now lets also say that the ships are pretty far. And also assume that if you really thought the ships would all sink that defeatism would likely mean you wouldn’t make it to the ship before being exhausted. Now it seems to me that a rational person will swim to a boat that they think has the best chance of making it. He will also work to convince himself that he believes the ship will make it to shore to the extent that helps them make it to the ship. (even though the actual chances might be lower than 50%) This strategy, I believe would give me the best chance of achieving my goal of survival.

    I see these different ships as different world views and metaethical positions. Now my goal (instead of survival) would be to arrange my beliefs so I live a life that is truly moral. Now it’s possible that a boat that I thought had a 2% chance makes it instead of the ship that I thought had a 4% chance. But then there is not much I can say other than I gave it my best attempt. And I would be at peace with that. But I would feel foolish if I went for a ship that I knew was going to founder and the ship I estimated with the best chance made it. Then I was irrational and perhaps even at fault for being irrational.

    “But I also want to say that my choosing to act in moral (maybe ethical is the better word) ways is not choosing to live my life based on something make believe.”
    I agree your desires are real as are your emotions. So my desire or positive emotion from seeing people care for each other or me eating lamb chops is real. But on the relativist view of morality the make believe comes in when, by definition when we say caring for people is therefore good. Its that step where we are making things up either as individuals or society. If you do not think we are making it up (you think that step is based in some objective reality) then I don’t think you are a relativist/constructivist.

    “I’ll detail several reasons why that is later on because I still have some questions for you.”
    I would be interested in reading that. But keep in mind the above. I agree the desires and emotions are real. It’s the next step where you equate those with being morally good that gets us into make believe territory.

    “I think I understand your view now on the moral argument related to God – you don’t use Craig and Lewis’ approach of “morality exists therefore God exists”. Yours is kind of the reverse, which is what I suspected but wasn’t sure.”
    The logic goes both ways. But as I expressed earlier I do think the Euthyphro dilemma does illustrate it is at least logically possible for real morality to exist without God. I think no God would yield other problems for the moral realist. Mainly epistemological ones. Which is a fancy way of saying they would have problems believing they are justified in their moral beliefs.

    “Joe, I’m sure you’ve given some thought about why you choose to follow the God you believe exists. Why do you choose to follow?”

    At first I thought you might have been asking why the Christian God or even why I am Catholic. But instead you are asking why choose to follow. And that is because moral truths have no empirical indicia. That is wrongness is not something we can see. So in order to learn what is moral I would need to rely on a source of information that is not bound by the five senses. Since all natural beings are about equally reliant on our 5 senses they will all be equally incapable of being an original source of what is moral. I would need to find a guide that is supernatural and not bound by our limitations of knowledge. Following anything else is just the blind leading the blind.

  34. Hi Joe – I agree with you that the epistemic hurdle is the toughest one for atheists to jump over, but I don’t think it is as insurmountable as you do. It is for sure one of the contributing factors to why I am more of a quasi objectivist (to you I am a relativist given your definition of objective, which is fair enough – I don’t like getting mired in semantics). I’m a little more interested in the other aspects of morality we are talking about right now though.

    IMO life isn’t always so clear. There is allot of uncertainty that we need to deal with in the most rational way.

    Joe, this is by far the thing that I agree the most with you. I think I would even multiply it by about 10 when it comes to things like meta-ethics, meta-physics, and meta-anything really – all the “ultimate” or “big” questions of life. Things like that are nowhere near the certainty levels of topics in math or the hard sciences. You can tell this by the name of my blog. It is why I always use the word “lean” in our discussions.

    There’s a lot more I want to respond to but I’ll stop here on this one:

    “you don’t use Craig and Lewis’ approach of “morality exists therefore God exists”. Yours is kind of the reverse, which is what I suspected but wasn’t sure.”
    The logic goes both ways.

    I’m very confused as to how you believe the logic goes both ways. You have said repeatedly that there is really no evidence the atheist can use to prove the existence of morality (which I only partially agree with you). But if this is the case then I don’t see how you can use the argument “morality exists therefore God exists”. You can’t use the conclusion as support for the premise. So if you think that argument works, what support do you use for the premise?

  35. Ok I meant that if objective morals exist and we can reliably know what they are then that would be evidence of God.

    Also it goes the other way. If God exists then that is evidence that objective morality exists and we can reliably know what it is.

    Let me give an analogy.

    1) OJ Simpson’s bloody footprint was at the scene where Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed.
    2) OJ Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
    Now both of these statements are logically independent and to some people uncertain. Logically either one might be true and the other still false. But if we accept 1 as true it would be evidence of 2 being true. Now 2 is what we are usually trying to determine. So we think in terms of knowing 1 would be evidence for 2.

    But let’s just say we knew OJ murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Mr. Goldman. But we were for whatever reason trying to determine if that was OJ’s shoe print. The fact that we know he murdered them would be evidence that this was in fact his shoeprint. I mean the fact that we know he murdered them would put him at a place where such a shoe print could be made. Where as if we didn’t know he murdered them then we might not have any reason to put him there at all.

    So the logic would go both ways. If we know 1 that would be evidence of 2 and if we know 2 that would be evidence of 1.

    That is how I view the statements:
    1) There are objective moral requirements and we can reliably know what they are.
    and
    2) The Christian God exists.

  36. Hi Joe,

    That makes sense. Previously, it almost began to sound like you believed there was evidence for morality outside of your belief in God so I wanted to make sure. Some theists (and atheists as well) believe there is evidence for morality independent of belief which is why the argument for God from morality is so popular. One thing that is sometimes missed is that if there truly is evidence for morality apart from God then an atheist can use that as well in support of non-theistic morality. Now regarding epistimology, Russ Shafer-Landau who you mentioned before has a detailed epistemology for a naturalistic morality. Erik Weilenberg does as well, and Shelly Kagan very briefly mentions his own views on that in the video I posted in another post. Now I agree with you in not being convinced by these arguments when all of the evidence is weighed together, but I’m really not certain either way. And again, if a god who teaches and enforces morality existed one would expect that there would be good evidence of objective morality without having to have to believe in the existence of that god. So if you believe there isn’t evidence for morality apart from belief then that is a count against that belief (not a logical proof, just another weighing factor).

    But here’s the main point of the post, Joe. My main reason for converting to Christianity in the 90’s was because I wanted to be a moral person. Your response to why you follow seemed to imply the same thing about you. I desire in my heart to live a life of love. I hate harming others and I love to help others. I hate evil and want to follow in the path of goodness. So the point is that, whether or not there is objective morality, and whether or not a God exists doesn’t change that desire of mine. Does it change a little – sure. Will I be a little more lax like I mentioned in the post – sure, sometimes people may get me angry and I may end up letting it go a little too far, and if there really was a God of morality watching over then I’d probably be a little more careful about controlling that, so I understand your points about that. But my desire to follow in the way of goodness does not change. My value system never changed and that is the main point.

    Is naturalistic moral talk make believe? I don’t think so. And I also don’t think that I can’t use the terms “morally good” just because I doubt the existence of some objective morality outside of human societies. In baseball people talk about a “good pitch” without believing that there is some objective rule about “good pitches” that exists somewhere outside of societies. And there are definitely aspects of pitching in baseball that are objective. There are objective things we could point to if we wanted to describe why my pitching is way worse than Clayton Kershaw’s. There are also some subjective aspects to that as well – my reason for using the term “quasi-objective”. Nobody would say that I can’t use the phrase “good pitch” just because I don’t believe there is some objective law outside of humanity that defines a good pitch. Good pitching has some objective aspects to it within the context of the rules of baseball which are created by humans.

    Can that apply to morality? I definitely think so. It’s true that morality has some more squishy subjective aspects to it, but in the end the goal of human flourishing is a pretty good approximate to what morality is about. Within the context of the rules that our societies set up for treating one another to create a positive environment for human flourishing the terms “good” and “evil” can take on meaning. You are right that it’s not cosmic, it’s not perfect, and you are right that each society can end up having different rules, but this doesn’t really change the main point of the goal of humanity. This is why there are thousands of colleges that have classes on ethics where religion is only briefly discussed.

    There’s so much more to say but I’ve ran way longer than I like.

  37. I was not aware that Russ Schaefer Landau gave an epistemological account of naturalism and morality. If it deal with the argument from evolution I would be very interested in reading it.

    As for the more in depth reasons I do not find relativism or constructivism coherent or viable I can not recomend his book “What ever Happened to Good and Evil?” strongly enough.
    http://www.amazon.com/Whatever-Happened-Good-Evil-Shafer-Landau/dp/0195168739
    The arguments are not really new but he sets them out in a very easy to read and understand way. He doesn’t use any obtuse unexplained jargon that plagues so many other philosophical texts.

    But although we may disagree I am glad you have this desire to do good and continue to push to do good. I think it is a wonderful thing.
    As a Catholic I often find myself defending the 2000 year old church. But I am very proud of our current Pope in many ways.
    I would like to end this post by quoting an article about Pope Francis.

    http://www.catholic.org/news/hf/faith/story.php?id=51077
    Francis based his homily on the message of Christ to his disciples taken from the Gospel of Mark. Francis delivered his message by sharing a story of a Catholic who asked a priest if atheists were saved by Christ.

    “They complain,” Francis said, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” He explained that Jesus corrected them, “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.”

    The disciples, Pope Francis explained, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong… Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.”

    “Even them, everyone, we all have the duty to do good, Pope Francis said on Vatican Radio.

    “Just do good” was his challenge, “and we’ll find a meeting point.”

    Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

  38. Hi Joe,

    As for the more in depth reasons I do not find relativism or constructivism coherent or viable I can not recomend his book “What ever Happened to Good and Evil?” strongly enough.

    My understanding of moral relativism matches what I found by a simple google definition search:

    Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.

    It’s pretty clear to me that the view I’ve been describing here is definitely not that, but I can see how you may have easily misinterpreted some of what I wrote to match that. This is understandable given that I’m not the best at philosophy (I’m an engineer), and also that you are coming to the table with an understanding of morality from a religious context.

    But Landau is pretty interesting, I have an interest in the subject, and it will help me understand your view better so I’ll probably add the book to my list. It may be a while because I’m currently in the middle of 7 books – I have a tendency to be a bit ADD when it comes to books. Richard Carrier probably does a much better job than me at explaining the main points of my view in “Sense and Goodness Without God”. It discusses general epistemology and then goes into the subject of morality. My view is more agnostic about the subject but it at least explains the views on the subject which make the most sense to me.

    Thanks for that quote from Pope Francis. I like that he is making a much better effort at building bridges to people of other worldviews. Something that I believe objectively adds to human flourishing. 😉

  39. I know it’s been a while since you’ve posted this, but I want to wish you well on dealing with your losses. I went through that myself not so long ago with my mother and my father a few years before her, and that experience takes its toll.

    On your question, I was an atheist at a young age, sometime in high school, maybe even earlier than that. I’m not sure I fully believed in God, ever, not even when I was a young child going to church. Something felt wrong at every step, even when I wasn’t consciously aware of my beliefs. My beliefs did affect the way I viewed morality and social dealings, but not in any consistent way. In high school I faced my beliefs on God more directly and I tended to see the world as a very bad place with bad motives behind everything. These were often hidden, concealed as good. In this mindset, everything makes sense—rather, everything when reduced in this manner makes sense—but it’s a heavy load to bear, especially if you’re a teenager and already keen on being angsty.

    I like to think I’m more nuanced in my adulthood. I hope. I used to call myself an agnostic, but now I really am. I do actually feel a sense of security in knowing that I can’t really know, and this uncertainty affects the way I think about morality in a very loose sense. Believing that one can’t construct a knock-down argument for the existence of God doesn’t necessarily directly affect my beliefs on specific issues, but it does affect my general comportment with the world.

  40. Hi Tina – thanks for stopping by and thank you for your well wishes. It’s good to hear from you again.

    I’m agnostic as well in some sense of the word, but there are so many different definitions of the word God(s) and each one of those I would say I hold different certainty levels of what I think about whether or not they exist in reality. For me, my agnosticism is such that while I don’t feel like I can say with certainty that “no gods exist” I don’t see how I can practically apply any belief in them in the way I live my life. If they exist I haven’t figured out a good way to know whether or not they are interacting or trying to communicate with me. For some people, however, it goes the other way. Some agnostics live their lives as if they believe because it “works for them”, or something like that. I have some friends like that and what I always like is that the conversations with them can always be one of mutual respect as well as a true interest of sharing different ideas. If you don’t mind sharing, how does your agnosticism play out?

  41. I don’t mind sharing at all. Thanks for the opportunity! These are interesting questions.

    The sort of theology I could buy into is not one that’s comforting. Something sort of cerebral, maybe that the universe is good rather than merely there. This would be based on reason, Platonism really. It wouldn’t go further than that and it would remain speculative, especially regarding particulars. Christianity is out for me, so far as I can tell. Organized religion is probably out too.

    However, I don’t consider theology the heart of the matter. I’ve heard agnostics, even atheists, give accounts of what they’d call a kind of spiritual experience. Maybe more credulous people would call this a religious experience. I believe this happens to people, that it’s a real phenomenon, but what is the cause? Who knows. It does strike me as peculiar that many people describe these experiences in similar ways, often at a loss for words, grasping for ways to express what can’t be expressed intelligibly to those who haven’t had one. Some describe feelings of being at one with the universe, others describe it in more peculiar ways. It’s not the ordinary feeling of happiness, but something more powerful. I take experiences seriously and I try not to reduce them to something else. Plus, I’ve heard such various types of people describe their experiences that I think there’s something to it. I don’t know what, but it’s real as a phenomenon. Some people get addicted to it, as they would a drug. Some will stop at nothing to get it again. That’s not to diminish the experience, but only to say they can get pretty nutty and even immoral in overriding their own beliefs.There’s an interesting documentary on Netflix called ‘Holy Hell’ that I thought was pretty well balanced. The person who made the film was a believer, and as I recall, still is. But the problem with trying to sustain that religious high is that they often attach that feeling to the particular circumstances that allowed it to happen, and in doing so delve deeper in the particulars and eventually discover there are flaws. This discovery can be earth-shattering. They might discover their religious leader is a hypocrite, or totally immoral, a predator. Or they might discover other things that just don’t fit with their beliefs.

    I do understand that paradox (such as incarnation) is often crucial to having what some call a religious experience, but I’ve never had one and it wouldn’t be honest or even desirable for me to force the irrational theology that others need to “get there” on myself. (I don’t mean “irrational” in any derogatory sense, just “outside of reason.”)

    That’s great that you have friends who discuss this sort of thing with you. I can see why living life on an “as if” basis would work. For me, being open-minded is a rational and comfortable place to be. Open mindedness (not lip service!) doesn’t conflict with anything I believe and it feels a lot better than shooting holes through everyone else’s beliefs. I’ve come to realize that some people aren’t merely comforting themselves or deluding themselves, but have particular and sometimes peculiar beliefs because they arose in certain circumstances. These people rarely argue about it. Many will admit their beliefs don’t stand up to scrutiny, if you can get that far with them. In my experience they don’t really care to discuss these things on the level of theology…this just doesn’t concern them. If they do, and if the theology sounds like nonsense to me, I’ll try to get them to discuss what they actually experienced rather than what they make of the experience. We tend to squeeze experience into a little box, but it doesn’t always fit. And some just aren’t equipped to discuss things on that level.

    Concerning those who feel the need to bash others who don’t believe, I don’t get into it with them unless they trample on other people’s rights. I have doubts that they are truly religious, but I don’t know. In any case, that’s not my business anymore.

  42. I like a lot of what you wrote Tina and much of it matches with my own approach. I am open minded as well and in the genuine sense like you mentioned. As with you there are obviously some limits to that. I too have a hard time seeing myself being convinced of the veracity of traditional religions, especially the monotheistic ones I’m most familiar with. More Eastern traditions seem closer to reality but the funny thing is that they tend to claim quite a bit less than the western ones (I’m reminded of Buddhist “imponderables” which Hariod mentioned to me a while back), and with less claims it’s easier to be closer to reality. 🙂

    You mention spiritual experiences, and yes, the “at one with the universe” is by far the most common thing I’ve heard, and I’ve also heard this from some atheists as well. There’s been some research into these experiences but it looks to me like it’s still in it’s early stages. There seems to be some connection however with these spiritual experiences and brain “malfunction” or disease, and drugs have definitely been proven to enhance spiritual experiences. I used to desperately want these kind of experiences for myself, but now that I’ve learned some of this I’m actually relieved that I’ve never had one. But either way, you are correct that no matter what the cause, it’s clear that the phenomenon and experiences themselves are real and not made up. Which reminds me of this post which I wrote a while back. It was my attempt at trying to strike a balance between focusing on objective critical reasoning versus the fact that life experiences have a great impact on belief as well.

    Totally unrelated question – what ever happened with the health scare you had early last year? I hope it’s all worked out for the better.

  43. I’ll check out that post!

    Yes, there’s a strange balance that’s possible between critical thinking and life experience, between theorizing and emotional fact. That balance gets harder and harder to find when/if you belong to certain religious groups that dictate punishing exercises or humiliation (usually directed at the rational mind in order to undermine it, although sometimes directed at fairly reasonable or healthy things such as a neurotic drive to obtain wealth, status, etc.) For some, this extremism is necessary. These aren’t necessarily dumb people buying into dumb ideas. There’s a sort of pragmatism going on even here. I think it takes a realization that you are screwing up your own life in ways you can’t fix yourself. There’s a reason AA has a religious element to it. In a way, a great deal of life-shattering experience is about surrender. For me, well, what can I say? I’m pretty happy with with my life so far. I haven’t screwed things up yet, at least not so much that I’d be willing to surrender reason. Or, to put it another way, I don’t need to surrender. Maybe someday I will.

    As for the health scare, I still have no diagnosis. I do know it’s nothing serious—at least nothing known as deadly or debilitating—and my symptoms haven’t gotten worse. At this point I’m ready to give up on the search for an answer. I’m getting on fairly well with medications and it feels better to just let it go as much as I can. A nurse practitioner thought I might have narcolepsy, but I’m not interested in getting tested for that since there’s no cure, and since I’m already taking the medication I would be prescribed with that diagnosis. Also, I doubt that’s it, but there’s just enough overlap in my symptoms to make me wonder. I’m just really tired of spending money on this.

    I started a flamenco class and that’s been stimulating and probably good for my balance problem. All in all, I’m doing well. Thanks for asking!

    How have you been since this last post? I’ve been slowing down on my blogging too, mostly because I’m busy writing and doing domestic things.

  44. Yeah, I’m in the same boat – in fact I would always be worried that surrendering reason would make things even more screwed up if my life ever got in a really screwed up situation.

    For me, I think the conundrum comes in with the recognition that even my reasoning (no matter how solid it is) uses life experiences to build up my own worldview. So if that’s the case for me, how can I claim my own view to be any more superior to other worldviews when theirs may also be built off of experience + reason.

    I’m glad to hear your symptoms are easily managed and that it’s not anything serious. I can totally relate to giving up on trying to spend too much money to get to the bottom of health issues.

    I’ve been doing much better since this last post. I’ve been spending time reading and listening to books on philosophy and religion in replacement of the time that I would spend blogging. Some have been very interesting. I still have the desire to get back into blogging, but I think I may have bloggers block. 🙂

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