Friday, August 16, 2019

Julius Evola and the Sham of Conservative Philosophy

You may have heard whisperings of the existence of something called a “conservative idea” or a “conservative philosophy.” These strange suggestions aren’t attributable just to the journalist’s performance of objectivity, to her pretense that there are two sides to every story and that her job as reporter is only to present both sides without prejudgment and to let the reader determine which is factual and which is flagrant disinformation, spin, propaganda, myth, and the like. Were the journalist’s role indeed to be so neutral, we could expect to bid farewell to every journalist in short order, since the internet allows all sides on an issue to present their versions of the story, without the need of an intermediary. But I digress.

The talk of “conservative ideas” is comparable to the Catholic Church’s insistence, when first confronted with ancient Greek and modern rationalist challenges to its dogmas, that philosophy and science can just as easily vindicate the Christian creed as these rationalist disciplines can disprove it. Thus was born systematic or “Scholastic” theology, the flaunting of logic in defense of magical thinking, ignorance, and fear-based prejudice. Likewise, “political science” arose as a rationalist discipline, as the humanities in general had to compete with the sciences for respectability. Liberals and conservatives thus had to justify their attitudes by appealing to philosophical and scientific methods.

In the United States, there were, then, the neoconservatives who rose to power under George W. Bush and who set to work disguising their warmongering as a respectable case for “regime change” in Iraq. Their ruse was exposed when their predictions of a prosperous and democratic Iraq were quickly falsified by the opposite reality (Iraq is now largely controlled by Iran), and when their “case” turned out to be a cynical pretext and an application of shock capitalism. Presently under Trump, there’s the more egregious spectacle of a wildly anti-intellectual mob of white supremacist trolls, anarchists, and fake Christians rushing to justify their cult of enslavement to a pure demagogue and conman. No longer known as “neoconservative,” this cult calls itself the “alt right” or part of the “intellectual dark web.” In the mainstream media’s simplified telling, Karl Rove served as “Bush’s brain,” while Trump supposedly has Steve Bannon to thank for the illusion of order in his official activities. But whether they know it or not, the alt right rationalize their fear and bigotry by summoning some stylings of the Traditionalist School, such as the “ideas” of Rene Guenon and Julius Evola. The Charlottesville white supremacists’ chant of “Blood and soil!” and their fear of being replaced by foreigners, for example, can be given an elaborate pseudo-justification in those terms.

Evola’s Spiritual Aristocracy

Julius Evola
Let’s focus on Evola’s defense of “Tradition” to see how this charade works. Conservatives generally look to a mythical past to justify their authoritarian character, just as progressives and socialists hold out the prospect of a utopian future as the end that justifies their weak-willed compromises with the powers that be. Evola spices up his appeal to tradition with an assortment of esoteric references in his texts. He condemns all aspects of modernity—individualism, egalitarianism, democracy, secularism, naturalism, neoliberalism (free market ideology), and even the wrong kind of dictatorship—as so many failures to abide by a more principled and spiritual social order. Genuine authority, he says, is service to a transcendent idea or principle which inspires a population to respect quality over quantity and to divide itself into a social hierarchy of castes or races.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Entheogen: the Source, Substance, and Bane of Religions

Art by Alex Grey
The strangest thing about the major religions isn’t that their practitioners are adults that have childlike beliefs about invisible persons, miracles, and life after death. No, what’s most puzzling about religions is that they aren’t upfront about the fact that the entheogen or psychotropic substance is their source and essence. We know from ancient religious art and from scattered references in religions such as Hinduism and the Eleusinian Mysteries that their practitioners employed hallucinogenic drugs. We know also that shamanism is likely the oldest religion, associated as it was with Paleolithic animism, and that shamans used these drugs and other techniques to achieve altered states of consciousness.

There are at least three possible reasons for the religions’ coyness about their psychedelic basis.

First, assuming that the drug produces only hallucinations or perceptual illusions, the extent to which a religion is based on such experiences could easily be the extent to which the religion is a fraud, in which case this origin of theological content could be kept hidden out of embarrassment or denial.

Second, there’s the social need for the esoteric/exoteric divide, since the knowledge or experience nevertheless obtained from the use of entheogens is potentially harmful both to the individual’s mental integrity and to social organizations. This means that religious myths may refer obliquely to their true source and substance, as a test of the readiness of the audience to absorb the shocking truth. As Jesus says about his use of parables, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11-12). Here Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, where the prophet receives his commission from an angry Yahweh who condemns the people of Judah for their faithlessness in the face of the Assyrian invaders. The message is that most people aren’t fit for spiritual wisdom and so the ultimate truths have to be protected with secrecy.

Third, the secrecy empowers some at the expense of others. The point needn’t be that those who have religious power are familiar with the psychedelic basis of religion, and that they mean to retain their advantages by guarding the source of their knowledge; on the contrary, the exploitation of others is a sign that the dominator has only a mundane mentality. (Even the psychopath who’s abandoned social norms and who is thus in some ways freer than the benighted followers typically reverts to a standpoint of genetic egoism.) The third possibility, rather, is that those with religious power over others mean to eliminate the substance of religion, such as by helping to ban entheogens, and to distract the masses with cheap and shallow substitutes, to ignore existential questions and indulge in profane games.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Pragmatism, Naturalized Platonism, and Freewill: A Conversation

[The following is an email conversation I had with Sybok, a reader of this blog. The conversation began in the comment section of my dialogue on the moral argument for God. We wanted to debate the issue of freewill, but realized that we should first consider our different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, since otherwise those would crop up and divert us. So that’s what we did. Without further ado, here’s our dialogue.]

***

SYBOK: You ask what happens when we know something is true. Since there's no God, truth can't be a case of mere correspondence where our opinion about something matches God's. But it can't be a simple matter of coherence either, since plenty of coherent statements are pure fiction (The Buffyverse is coherent). Clearly, neither coherence nor correspondence is a sufficient condition for truth. For something to be 'true', it must be coherent, but it must also correspond to... what?

Plato had the answer in his theory of forms. Plato believed that everything, from a triangle to a horse, had an archetypal form that persisted outside time and space. Today we know that horses evolved from non-horse ancestors with many intermediate species that gradually approximated the modern horse; hence there can be no eternal horse-form. But Plato's error wasn't his theory, but its over-application. Horses are synthetic in that they are composed of cells, molecules, atoms, etc. The forms aren't synthetic, but irreducible preconditions for the existence of any synthetic entity. Forms don't change, but their relationships do. Forms have no extension in space-time, but they underpin it. We all know some forms, though not through our senses; and when we know a form, we know it's true.

The forms are numbers, logical relationships and normative principles like Aristotle's law of Identity. Without these, nothing could exist. This doesn't make synthetic things 'untrue' in the sense of nonexistent. Horses are real; but for something to be real it must be compossible; if compossible it must be possible; if possible it must be rational. Hegel erred when he said that all that is rational is real. A rational thing is possible, but unless it's compossible with everything else, it will never be real (unicorns are possible, but aren't real).

To summarize: Something's 'true' when it corresponds to a rational form and something's 'real' if it's compossible.

***

BENJAMIN: Plato thought that material things are copies of immaterial, more perfect originals. The intuition there would be the picture theory of meaning. So a painting of a horse is about a horse because the two are similar. But similarity theories of meaning have proven quite problematic. An accidental arrangement of clouds might resemble a train, but we wouldn’t say the one is intentionally directed towards the other. So similarity doesn’t seem like a sufficient condition of meaning. In any case, it’s hard to see how immaterial “things” could resemble material ones, so there wouldn’t even be much similarity between the worlds to speak of. Likewise, words don’t resemble their objects (linguistic symbols are digital, not analogue), so there resemblance seems irrelevant to meaning.

I think a Platonist should think of knowledge and truth as having to do with mystical insight and experience. In this fallen domain, there’s only illusion and ugliness, not real beauty, truth, or goodness. The Cave analogy says it all. So Platonism joins up with Gnosticism and the Indian religions. In nature we have faint ideas of what we should be doing and of what should have been. There should be goodness, beauty, and truth, but in contemplating those wishes we’re only vaguely remembering our prior life, in so far as we were one with the Good or with the unified source of multiplicity. When we talk about natural knowledge, then, we’re fooling ourselves just like the captives in the cave fool themselves into thinking they’re dealing with something other than flickers of shadows on the wall.

When we acquire philosophical habits of mind, however, and we focus on rational and ethical absolutes, we encounter ideals and learn to forsake the material copies as we get lost in philosophical explorations. Knowledge, then, really would be akin to falling in love—but with abstract ideas rather than with people or with material objects. We know something, for a Platonist, when we’re possessed with an abstraction and when we’re awestruck by such evidence that there’s a better world beyond nature. Truth and error would be something like the continuum between virtue and vice, a falling short or an approximation, not so much having to do with similarity but with the moral or aesthetic inferiority of the copies to the originals. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Democrat employs Strange Tactic in Defeating President Trump

Dateline: WASHINGTON, DC, year 2020—The Democratic nominee has won the presidency, beating Donald Trump in a landslide, and has also had bizarre good luck, by employing an unusual political tactic.

“I decided to go against my handlers and pollsters,” said President-elect Ernest Mann. “They wanted me to play it safe and follow what was superficially-popular to say. Instead, I decided to shape public opinion and to tell the obvious, blunt truth and rub everyone’s face in it.”

Mr. Mann spent months during the nomination process and the campaign answering every question he received from the media by saying, “Donald Trump is a fascist,” “The Republicans are totalitarians,” or something else along those lines. His speeches likewise consisted solely of such exclamations.

For example, in a televised debate with the other Democratic nominees, Mr. Mann was pressed on his plan for medical coverage. Instead of answering directly, he held up and pointed at a picture of President Trump, and shouted repeatedly, “Fascist! Fascist! Fascist!” To emphasize his point, Mr. Mann proceeded to light his hair on fire.

Winning the nomination, Mr. Mann went on to debate President Trump and he deployed the same technique, varying his choice of words only so as not to bore the audience.

Twelve times in that debate, Mr. Mann interrupted the president by pointing at Mr. Trump and shouting some combination of the following: “Fascist dictator! Trump’s an evil totalitarian menace! 1984! 1984! Fascist pig! Con man! Con man! Demagoguing fascist! Evil clownish man-child! Psychotic lying fascist scum! Nazi white supremacist filth! Nazi! Fucking Nazi! He’s a wannabe fucking Nazi!!”

When a moderator pointed out that he wasn’t answering any of the questions directly, Ernest Mann stuck to his guns, pointing at his Republican opponent, jumping onto his podium and shouting at the top of his lungs, “Trump’s an American fascist! Danger! Danger! A totalitarian menace is standing right over there. American Nazi! American Nazi! Wannabe fucking Nazi! Putin-lover! Kim-lover! Saddam-lover! Fascist scoundrel! Evil, psychopathic subhuman clown!”

A miracle seemed to be afoot, because in the election Mr. Mann won every state in the American union, including the so-called red states.

But Mr. Mann’s good fortune didn’t end with that astonishing victory.

Shortly before the election he won three billion dollars in a lottery, all of which he gave to charities. Two days later, he won four billion dollars in another lottery.

A unicorn appeared out of nowhere and the president-elect rode the mythical beast to his swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill. As he held up his hand and took the Oath of office, a dove flew nearby and landed on his shoulder.

Political analysts have struggled to explain these strange outcomes. For his part, by way of explanation, Mr. Mann ventured, “The truth will set you free.”

Friday, July 26, 2019

Robert Mueller: The Knight-Errant who Tripped over his Lance

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—Robert Mueller stunned the quarter of Americans who are intent on keeping their country from sliding down the tubes, by turning in a lackluster performance in his televised hearings before Congress.

Knowing that most Americans prefer to watch television than to read, Democrats had hoped Mr. Mueller would translate the legalese of his muddled report into bombshell talking points, to fire up the calls to begin impeachment proceedings against an egregious pseudopresident, Donald Trump, who has profaned the White House or else shown that the myths of the sacredness of American values have always been lies. 

Mr. Mueller refused to comply with those pleas for assistance in saving the republic from the chthonic forces of populist anarchy and right-wing Christian balderdash. As the adorable progressives in the congressional hearings praised his patriotism and lobbed softball questions about Mr. Trump’s galaxy of wrongdoings, Mr. Mueller revealed that he’s a doddering old man clinging desperately to the letter of the law like a clueless Pharisee.

The director of the investigation into Mr. Trump’s conspiracy to turn the United States into a fascist hellhole refused to venture further than the findings of his report, just as that report declined to indict Mr. Trump for his obvious conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice. No such report was needed in the first place to remind everyone about the president’s millions of crimes and sins against the human spirit.

In a press conference following his anticlimactic appearances before Congress, Mr. Mueller clarified his reluctance to help save his country by lowering himself to the level to which the United States has sunk since the megalomania of Richard Nixon.

“The problem is that politicians have the cooties,” said Mr. Mueller. “The Democrats didn’t just want me to give political answers. They wanted me to associate with politicians, to be in the same room with cootie-ridden, pants-on-fire liars, with sordid, money-grubbing cowards and demagogues who won’t even take my report to the next logical stage and file to impeach the president.”

Mr. Mueller stressed that he would much rather be stalking poor foreigners in the jungles of Vietnam, mowing them down with machine-gun fire and drinking their blood with his stony-faced Marine buddies.  

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Is Donald Trump Authentic?

Is Donald Trump the most personally authentic public figure in America? Tens of millions of Americans would praise his authenticity, and a cottage industry has sprouted up to explain how a nonstop liar and psychopath, with no higher cognitive functions or inner life beyond the reptilian instinct for dominating everyone else could have co-opted what for centuries—long before existentialism—was a profound, spiritual ideal. From Scientific American and American Interest, to Forbes and Newsweek, to CNN and Medium, pundits have puzzled over the concept of authenticity, studied the social scientific research, and rehashed recent history to explain how something like Donald Trump could be deemed authentic.

Vulgarity versus Authenticity

One of their key findings is that the cooptation happened decades before Trump, when corporations tempted the hippie generation to sell-out its values. WWII and the Cold War forced Americans to adopt the British attitude of “keeping a stiff upper lip,” of repressing their inner self for the sake of appearances. The implicit advice was to resist showing fear of the enemy or doubt about the prevailing social systems; instead, you were to obey the proffered conventions blindly to the point of attempting to escape a nuclear bomb blast by hiding under a desk, as the government instructed. After the repression of the “conservative” 1950s came the let-it-all-hang-out attitude and the rocking-and-rolling of the 1960s, which ended in tears as the hippies’ socialist utopia failed to materialize. Minorities won some civil rights, the Vietnam War eventually ended, and Nixon left in disgrace, but the dark side of hippie culture was apparent from the disaster at the Altamont Music Festival and from the cult of Charles Manson. Still, the wave of psychedelic drug use popularized an ideal of personal authenticity, since the drugs rebooted the psyche and encouraged skepticism towards the conventional roles that had to be occupied by your persona. After the leftist takedown of “the System” or “the Man,” there would be no need to split your personality into your private and public selves.

By the 1980s, corporations had absorbed that subculture of resistance. Advertisements exploited the value placed on finding your true self, by manufacturing interest in unnecessary products that were vaguely associated with your fundamental desires. Politicians learned they could appear “authentic” by acting as though they weren’t upper-class power elites. By rolling up their sleeves at a campaign speech or by organizing a photo op of them sitting in a diner eating a slice of pizza, politicians could impress the gullible, narcissistic, slow-witted and uninformed masses, by mastering the use of certain symbols. Personal authenticity became a shallow performance and thus a paradox.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Source of Christian Audacity

Mysteries abound for the curious, from the counterintuitive behaviour of subatomic particles, to the origins of life and the nature of consciousness. One enigma which few would consider as profound as those, but which is no less baffling is the source of Christian audacity, especially in the United States. Most Christians living in poverty in underdeveloped countries are only ignorant, at worst, but the US is an outlier since most Americans, by comparison, are well-off, educated, and also religious. While that mismatch between the fruits of secular modernity and the clinging to obsolete traditions has perplexed sociologists, that isn’t exactly the mystery I have in mind. Perhaps even many religious middleclass Americans are ignorant of philosophy and lacking in the critical thinking skills needed to lay bare the stark incoherence of their worldviews.

The mystery, rather, is the obnoxiousness that’s palpable especially on the side of right-wing American Christians, who not only pretend that there’s no conflict between Christianity and the Age of Reason (science, capitalism, and democracy), otherwise known as “modernity,” but who luxuriate in their form of incoherence. That form is aptly called “Americanism,” and that’s the surface of the enigma in question, where the Christian aspect of Americanism is the blithe flaunting of theocratic or dominionist pretensions, using such instruments as the Republican Party, Fox News, talk radio networks, and Evangelical churches, together with this Christian’s obliviousness to the historical, theological, and philosophical gratuitousness of those pretensions. Americanism is partly a case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect, but the mystery can’t be resolved just by saying as much. The psychological causes of Americanism, of the gross contradictions in many Americans’ worldview, may be apparent, but what of the historical origin? Is the conservative Christian’s effrontery just a malady akin to a personality defect or is the Christian religion fertile ground for the sprouting of such a poisonous tree? Follow me on this journey down a path of dishonour, as we wend our way to the heart of the mystery.

The Gall of Christian Family Values

But let’s begin with a current example. Conservative American Christians pontificate about the necessity of family values. Meanwhile, Jesus and Paul taught the opposite, that Christians should flee their families and their jobs and practice asceticism, and that, should they prove too weak to devote themselves fully to God in that fashion, they should be chaste even within their marriage. The reason Jesus and Paul taught such a radical, subversive, utterly anti-conservative message is that they also apparently believed the world was going to end soon, that the signs were then impossible to ignore (namely Jesus’s resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), so that was the time to cease all compromises and perfect oneself with absolute commitment to the highest possible ethical standards. No children or long-term social planning were needed, because God was about to break through the natural universe and establish a divine kingdom.

Conservative Christians can’t be easily forgiven for doubting that the New Testament’s message on those subjects is so one-sided, because the reason for the lack of clarity only deepens the mystery by adding to the Christian’s shamelessness. As Elaine Pagels points out in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, the Gospels include the radical message, but they also soften it as time wore on, the end never came, and churches had to begin to think strategically and practically about how best to organize long-term communities. For example, as Pagels writes, ‘Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ promise of great rewards to “every one that has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name’s sake” (19:29), with Jesus’ reaffirmation of the traditional commandment “Honour your father and mother” (19:19),’ as though there were no blatant contradiction between them. Matthew also softens Mark’s uncompromising prohibition of divorce, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11), by having Jesus say, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt.19:9, my emphasis).

Friday, July 5, 2019

Tragic Heroes in Fiction and Reality

Aristotle defined the “tragic hero” in fiction as a fallible, morally-upright protagonist who provokes pity or fear in the audience because even this character’s strengths are finite and so they’re accompanied by a fatal flaw or limitation, which leads to his or her downfall. Whereas a god would have no such flaw, we can be only imperfectly moral even at our best, in which case we’re subject to the rule of irony: we can be trapped by our success, corrupted by power or good fortune, and led astray not because we’re unable to cope with adversities but because the moral enterprise itself is somehow cursed. The tragic perspective amounts to a critique of the ancient Greek conceit that nature is “cosmic,” that the universe is so ordered that everything fulfills a purpose, from the so-called four material elements to human beings. To be sure, for the ancient Greeks the universe isn’t the best of all possible ones, since they thought the gods are only doing their best to hold back the opposing forces of chaos. Still, the question raised by tragic narratives is whether the compromised cosmos is good enough for a wise person to place her trust wholeheartedly in the traditions and inspirations that are meant to guide us. The horror in tragedy is that life may not be worth living if even heroes can be doomed, because the project of heroism itself is poorly realized in the flawed cosmos.

At least, that’s a question raised for late-modern philosophers who have gone beyond the Greek vision, to entertain the deeper, existential fear known as “angst,” that being the general suspicion that the whole world is indeed operating other than for the best. If there are no natural purposes, because the concept of purpose is “subjective,” as we learned to say especially after the cogitations of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, we risk being alienated from nature and perpetrating harebrained gambits to extract us from that predicament. We know, for example, that the heliocentric model of the universe is invalid because it’s unapologetically human-centered. To go on trusting our intuitions after learning that the universe’s scope in time and in space is inhuman seems foolish.

Or is there greater folly in presuming we can stand apart from nature and seek to improve on the world as we find it? Is there anything still heroic in the tragic hero, given the cosmicist view of nature as being an inhuman wilderness that necessarily appalls the lover of knowledge? Again, to say that Everyman in the Age of Reason is estranged from the world in so far as the latter is scientifically explained is to say not just that we automatically question the “wisdom” of natural processes, since we presume they’re not the product of benevolent intelligence but are accidents and readily at odds with our preferences. In addition to such outwards doubts there are the inward ones since we, too, are natural beings. How wise, then, is the wisest person? How honourable or beautiful or industrious? What is the merit of human virtues if we’re flawed creatures in a universe in which none of us, not even the universe as a whole was meant to be?

Notice the difference between calling nature “flawed” and calling it “inhuman.” A flawed universe approximates some ideal, in which case we could speak of natural rights and purposes without resorting to a self-centered metaphor. By contrast, an inhuman universe is a terrifying monster, namely that which is other than anything we could feel comfortable with by way of intuitive understanding of it. By intuition we know ourselves best of all and so we’re most at ease thinking about people or about living things. We quail at the prospect of being logical and objective, of putting aside our self-serving biases and trying to understand reality as it is, because as Kant explained, there’s no such understanding. Objectivity leads us to horror in the face of the noumenon, to the sobering conclusion that we don’t really know anything at all, since the methods we employ to understand things inevitably humanize them to some extent, and humanization of the inhuman is falsification. So if the world is alien to us, if the closer we are to us, the further we are to nature, we can’t trust our anthropomorphic models and should confess that the natural world has nothing to do with any explanation of its patterns that could conceivably be a relief to us. But we’re led to doubt both the world around us and our efforts since as strange as the emergence of intelligence may be in nature, our thoughts and actions have animal origins and so they may be counterproductive.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Liberals and Conservatives, Humanists and Animalists

Are you a liberal or a conservative? Progressive or traditionalist? Leftist or right-winger? If you think that aligning with some of those categories is of ultimate political concern, you may have been taken in by the central pseudoproblem of Western politics.

The main deficiency of those categories lies not in their overuse, although the hackneyed formulations of much political punditry deadens our sensibilities, preventing us from understanding much of what’s been happening before our eyes. Neither is the underlying problem that our political discourse is fragmented and tribal, as we scramble to identify with a political party or with our favourite celebrity, news personality, or podcaster to feel like we belong to something that will outlast our meager self.

The chief embarrassment, rather, is that the categories in question obscure a deeper, unspeakable division, even while the conventional distinctions we draw in politics are acceptable because they’re irrelevant. Allow me, then, to outline the real division, to help you come to know where you really stand on the political front.

The Origin of Politics

A long time ago, humans separated from the other animals by acquiring what philosophers and psychologists call “personhood.” A person enjoys greater autonomy, intelligence, and creativity than the animals do, which is why our kind has dominated the planet in spite of the comparative weakness of our body type (although our mental talents in turn have given us physical prowess in the form of technological control). Animals are defined by their conformity to their biological life cycle, whereas we have more and more godlike freedom from our evolutionary role.

Rather than being angels or saints that have wholly transcended our animal nature, however, we often regress. After all, it’s hard to know what to do with godlike power, given life’s humble origin from water and dust. Thus, for a few million years in the Paleolithic Age, nomadic bands of wise apes wandered the plains as hunter-gatherers. Eventually they formed civilizations and learned the benefits and drawbacks of a sedentary way of life. There were artistic revolutions, culminating early on in the cave paintings, as well as spiritual and philosophical revolutions such as those of the Axial Age, from the eighth to the third centuries BCE.

These exciting advances in learning to cope with our personhood, with our existential divide from the rest of nature, on account of our unparalleled knowledge of our mortality and of the scope of the universe met with setbacks when we sometimes fell back into ignorance. After dark ages there were rebirths as we recaptured old insights and social frameworks. But even the social progress we take for granted, including advances in farming, medicine, and civil rights has no absolute legitimacy, because all such advances are experiments in personhood, in the creativity of clever mammals that have to look to themselves and to their cherished fictions to decide what to do with a superabundance of knowledge and freedom. What’s good for our species or for some generations, at least, may be disastrous for life in general; our progress may have tragic unintended consequences, because that progress is an accident on top of an accident, a social development resting on the natural selection of our species’ brain power.   

Friday, June 21, 2019

Clash of Worldviews: The Moral Argument for God

MODERATOR: Welcome to our program, where we fling worldviews into each other without mercy to see which comes out on top. Our floor here is littered with the detritus of a thousand inferior ideologies. It’s a sort of Darwinian struggle for survival in which the weaker ideas are swallowed whole and excreted, the victor being heralded forever, like mighty Galactus, as a devourer of worldviews.

LINDSEY: Are you going to introduce us or just spout more nonsense?

MODERATOR: Ah, yes, apologies for getting carried away. With us this evening are Lindsey Rowe, Catholic extraordinaire; Adam Garnett, noted secular humanist; and Heather Fogarty, infamous cynic and pessimist. They’re here to discuss the moral argument for God’s existence. Lindsey, I take it you mean to defend that argument, so why don’t you begin by presenting it for us?

Theistic Morality

LINDSEY: Not only do I defend the moral argument, but I’m sure it’s one of the strongest theistic proofs. In a nutshell, the argument is that there could be no morality without God. The best, or indeed the only good explanation of why there is such a thing as morality in the universe is that there’s something holy and good which transcends nature, which we call “God.” Morality doesn’t really belong in this world, which is to say the absolute rightness or wrongness of certain actions is itself proof of a higher reality. Morality can’t be reduced to subjective opinions, matters of taste, or to natural phenomena such as the pursuit of power or even the need to cooperate to sustain a society. Moral laws are themselves supernatural and so they testify to a supernatural source. If you accept that there are facts of moral right and wrong, that morality is therefore objective or absolute, and if you want to understand how such morality could be possible in nature, you’ve got to believe in God.

ADAM: Well, where to start! How about with the fact that appealing to a supernatural cause couldn’t amount to an adequate explanation of anything, including morality. Even if morality were mysterious, it would do no good to attempt to solve that mystery by positing God. You don’t deal adequately with a mystery by replacing it with a much bigger mystery. As an argument, then, this moral proof doesn’t get off the ground.

LINDSEY: You understand well enough what I mean by “God,” Adam, just as you know that there are moral facts. You can pretend it’s all mysterious, to avoid facing up to the incompleteness of your naturalistic worldview, but that won’t stop others from seeing that the evidence for God has been staring us in the face all along.

ADAM: I know what people mean when they talk about Darth Vader, too, but that doesn’t mean I’d accept that you could explain why my coffee cup fell off the table by saying that Darth Vader knocked it off. In talking about fictional characters, we suspend our disbelief, perhaps so as not to offend fans of the story. But understanding make-believe at that happy level doesn’t amount to understanding in the empirical sense, since no one understands how a fiction could directly impact the real world. I’m afraid your God character is fictional in that respect, so there again you have the difference between a superficial level of understanding, the level at which, on the one hand, we skip over philosophical difficulties to get on well together in society by accepting certain myths or the level at which we have fun dwelling mentally in a fantasy world, and on the other, the rational kind of understanding of real-world causes and effects.