Sunday, April 5, 2009

On matters of life and death

This is a repost of something I wrote on IGI, the forum I'm spending a lot of my "conversations on the web" time on. It's a little long, but it encapsulates my philosophy on life fairly well, so I thought it was worth reposting. It's a response to a guy in his 20's who is facing for the first time the idea that yes, he really is going to die some day, and struggling with the idea that when that happens, he will no longer exist, and everything his life was will fade to nothing. When he was a kid, he was religious, and so death was a non-issue because he believed in the afterlife, but having lost that belief, he now wanted the advice of the forum, and specifically sent me a message asking for mine. This is what I said:


And long after i am forgotten it will be as if i never walked the earth.

Now, this is just my opinion, but I think that's wrong.

As long as the universe itself exists, what you did with your life will still be around. Now, you won't be remembered, there will be nothing that says "Trevor was here". But the consequences of your actions will still be there. Part of the background noise that shapes all future generations.

I think about my parents, and I wonder... what made them the way they are? And it was the people they lived around, the conditions of their lives. And what made those people the way they are? And it's the people that they lived around. And you can go back, generation after generation, and when you think about it, what each and every one of those people did, matters to the world I live in today. But of course, what other forms of life did matters too. And the happenstances of weather, and gravity and all kinds of forces beyond our control... all of these things made the world the way it is. In fact, the sum total of all human endeavors pales in comparison to the huge effect of time and the universe acting on itself, when it comes to the making of the world we live in today. And I am one of 6 billion living people today, and multi-multi trillion living organisms, on an infinitesimal part of the universe. So the amount of effect I can have even within my own life, on the people directly around me, is very, very, very, very, very small. But here's the kicker: It's not 0. And even though the recognition that I'll get for my contribution, whatever it may be, will be small, and will fade to 0, the consequences of my actions won't fade to 0. In fact, they might very well grow over time, not shrink. People I treat well, and help out, will help others, or hurt others less, and those people in turn will do the same, and over time the effects of my actions, good or bad, will multiply. So although there's a lot in life we can't control, or even fully understand, and who we were and that we lived may fade from memory, I think it is a deep mistake to think that after we die, it will eventually be as if we never lived. I think the consequences of our actions are as eternal as anything is.

Also, I think you should focus on what you can control. Because the brutal fact is, you have one shot. No do-overs. You screw up and miss out on something you could have had or done, maybe you'll learn from it, and a few years later you'll get in another similar situation, and do better. And that's all well and good, but that shot you had originally is gone, and you can't get it back. So decide what you want from life, and go after it. Death will come, inevitably, but... your one shot at life comes first.

This absolutely terrifies me. I dont want to die. but i am totally powerless to do anything about this.

That's right, you are (almost) completely powerless to do anything about... well, really most of the things that happen to you in life. The weather. The number of hours in a day, and how many of them have to be spent doing housework or other tasks that are going to have to be done again next week, and the week after that. The people you meet, and in large part whether or not they like you. The opportunities that come your way. Whether you're going to cross the street tomorrow and get hit by a bus. But of course, you do have some control. You can look both ways, and eat healthy, and be nice and smile. So it's a mistake to think that because there's so much you can't do anything about, you're powerless. The truth is, like with how much of a difference you can make in the world, your power to control things in your own life is very, very, very limited, but non-zero. And, you have a choice how you can spend your limited ability to control your life. You can spend your time being terrified of things over which you have absolutely no control whatsoever, or you can focus on the things you can do something about. Pour your energy into understanding what motivates you, what you're good at, what you want from life, and how you can have a good one. Treat the things you can't do anything about as fixed barriers you have to understand and work around, rather than throwing yourself against them. And find a way that when you look back on your life, you're happy about how you lived it. Again, death will come, but it's a (fairly) fixed barrier. Don't run from thinking about it, just remember - you have one shot, focus on making it count. Think about death only inasmuch as it helps you to be more effective at using the life-time that you have well. For me, that's pretty much daily, but it's not to be scared of it, it's just to say: don't forget - you get no second chances. And to continually evaluate whether I'm doing what I can to make my life count.

How do you do that?

Well, it's different for every person. Find the things you're good at, and understand the things that are important to you, is the first thing, I think. And then, continually take time to think about how your life is going, how you want it to go, what you can control and what you can't...

The list of things you could think about, and how carefully you could potentially think things through, means you could spend all of your time thinking, and none of it doing, though. Which is why, the key is balance. All of the possibilities of things you could do with your life, and all of the information that would allow you to make the best possible decisions, won't fit in your head. Time is limited, your perception of the world and your understanding of things is limited, so... you're never going to be able to make A+ perfect decisions, and have an absolutely ideal life, no matter how many times you think "only one shot". Your limitations are just another thing you're stuck with, though, and can't control. So, do your best, and accept that it's never going to be as good as it could have been if only you could have known what you learned this year five years ago.

Take all of this and synthesize it, and what kind of life do you get? Well, what happens is, you have peace because you've stopped worrying about things you can't do anything about. You have purpose because you've focused on figuring out what you want, at least enough to start acting on it. You have peer recognition because your'e doing things that use whatever strengths and talents you have, which means generally you're going to be better at whatever it is that you're spending your time at than the average person who is attempting that activity. And you wish there were 36 hours in a day, or you didn't have to spend 8 hours of the day sleeping (what a waste!). There's too much to do in life, too much to think about to figure out how to do the best job you can of controlling the few things you can control, for you to worry about death, or really anything else other than "am I doing my best?".

I live my life the best way I can, and if I die and find out there was a God and he's disappointed in me... well, OK. If someone says to me many years from now "hey, you've wasted a bunch of time, you should have been doing X with your life"... well, OK. Can't be helped. I'm an incredibly stupid, limited sort of creature, and there's only so much I can manage, so if I get it wrong, I get it wrong. I just spend my time trying the best I can to get it right. That absorbs all of my time, and all of my energy, and although I wish I was better, overall I'm pretty happy with the results. It's an approach I'd recommend to anyone. Another thing I'd recommend: Learn from people who are smarter than you, those who have spent their lives doing different things than you (because they're going to be smarter than you in the things they know about, and you're going to be smarter than them in the things you know about, so it works well for both of you) or have spent more time thinking about whatever it is you're thinking about. It's quite possible that something that would take you a year to figure out on your own could be learned from someone else in an hour.

Sorry this is so long, and I'm sure it doesn't give you all the answers you might be looking for. But the thing is, nobody has all of the answers. Luckily, everyone has some of them. Good luck (-:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What I've been up to, and a thought

Hi all!

So, I've spent several months over on a discussion forum, called Is God Imaginary instead of here blogging. I find the quality of the posters there is amazing, and, ya know, there are more of them than there are regular readers of this blog.

Anyway, I've done well enough with that that the powers that be on that forum have decided to make me an admin. Which means I (along with another guy) take care of the database, and can suggest and implement changes to the software and structure of the forum. It's open-source, so there are ongoing tweaks so that we can give structural/institutionalized support to positive discussion practices, and discourage things we don't like. Give everyone enough space so that there's a community, some private spaces where sub-groups can connect, and some public spaces where everyone can mingle and learn about each other.

Why is that interesting to you, my five or so readers? Because that's where my focus is going to be, and it's actually a pretty cool place. There are people there from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and beliefs (from Quakers to Catholics to young earth creationist calvinists, atheists, agnostics, pacifists and Republicans). It can be a volatile mix, but the strong emphasis the admins have on running it in a way that is transparent, and their genuine hope to build a place where respectful discussion takes place, means I find it unique and really interesting to participate in. So, if you've liked what you've seen on this blog, and you want more of the same, IGI is the place to be. And, if you take a look and think something there could be changed (particularly to make it a more welcoming environment for new members, because they're still in a growth phase) your suggestions would be welcome.

Since I'm doing my thinking over there now, mainly, what I might do is cross post some things I wrote there. For example, here's a discussion I started yesterday, titled "God: the stone in the stone soup of life?"


I remember when I was a kid, there was this story my parents read to me, called Stone Soup.

Details are here:

Basically, guy has stone + pot full of water, and describes how amazing stone soup tastes, and convinces everyone around to chip in a little. And everyone does, and in the end, they all had an amazing meal. Soup, from a stone.

This made me think of religion. So far, I haven't seen reliable evidence of God. But I have seen evidence of the power of the idea of God. Kind of like the power of the idea that stone soup tastes great. And in the end, it does.

So, what do you think? Is God like the stone in the stone soup of life? And if so, if you take the stone away, what replaces it? In a godless society, what stone will we coalesce around to promote charity and communal behaviours? There is evidence that religious people give more generously to charity (I think some is on Unkle E's site). So, is the lack of a stone for our stone soup a problem?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why we think we have free will

Simple answer: Because we can't completely model our own mind. Interesting conclusion that flows from that: We as individuals will always think we have free will, but to something that comes along that's smarter than us, which can completely model our minds, we will appear to be nothing more than fancy robots. Automatons.

Think about the things we say are "deterministic" or "don't have a choice". We say this because we know what the inputs and outputs will be. When you push a button, you know a computer is going to do a certain thing, consistently. Or... well, sometimes when you push a button, the computer crashes. Sometimes it crashes for no readily apparent reason at all, without you doing anything, and you get angry at Microsoft. But you do this because you assume someone, somewhere, made it so there's a reason this computer should crash, and that someone is an idiot because they just caused you to lose your spreadsheet. So since you think there's an understandable reason for everything a computer does, it doesn't have free will.

The systems we attribute choice to are the ones where the inputs and outputs are beyond our understanding. It used to be that a lot of the inputs and outputs to nature, and how they were processed, were very confusing to us. We didn't even have enough information to attempt to model them. So we said that God brought the seasons, and God made the sun come up and go down, and God, with His free will, decided who would live and who would die, who would get the black plague or be destroyed by earthquakes or volcanoes.

Now we're starting to understand a lot more about these systems, and build systems we know are deterministic in how they operate, but they seem to magically do things and we don't understand how. So it becomes a lot more plausible that the natural world has no "free will". That there are no free moral agents intervening in nature on our behalf. That there is no God, or that God is a deist God who doesn't fool around down here. But us? We're still free. Ask me why someone did something, and I can't give you a complete answer, but that's not a big deal because I can make assumptions and they are reasonably accurate. Except... those assumptions are never enough, people keep doing things that are so friggin' unexpected, that don't fit within my simplified model of how people think. Every time we try to explain human thinking in a deterministic manner, we fail, so there must be free will involved. Right? Right?

I think expecting us to be able to model ourselves, to fully understand the inputs and outputs to our own mind, is a logical impossibility. A model is a simplification. We can hold in our head a picture or an explanation of why we do what we do, but in order to encompass ALL of the inputs and outputs in our model, in order to fully explain ourselves, we would have to have a brain that holds everything in our brain and then some, which can't happen.

Since our model of ourselves (the one in our own head, anyway) will always be incomplete, it will always appear (to us) that we have a certain degree of freedom. But there will come a point where our model of ourselves in a book is close enough to complete that it will be most plausible to say we don't have free will. Because we'll be able to say "Ok, these were the starting circumstances, and this was the end result. Was that what our model expected?" And we look it up in a book, and the answer is always yes. Or we get two or more psychologists together, who together have the mental capacity to encompass the full model, and they can give us an answer as to why we did what we did, because together they have all of the pieces. Or a computer model, without our limitations of memory and processing speed, gives us consistent answers. This is the slightly scary one to me, because whoever owns that model will be able to make people do whatever they want, within the limitations of the things they can control, and the people will not have the capacity to understand how it's done. And away goes the idea of free will. The corporation that owns that model will know how to make you buy whatever it wants you to buy (or will know it can't make you buy it, at which point it will not bother trying to sell it to you). We're already seeing marketing approaches that have more knowledge of human psychology than most humans do, that know which "buttons" to "push" to make people buy despite their intentions not to... and those models will only get better. Our decisions will become less and less a matter of our free choices, and more and more a matter of influences deliberately imposed upon us by people (or computer models under the control of people) who understand how we work.

Does anyone have a reason why this can't happen, other than that you believe by faith in a book that says it can't? In other words, can you point out a flaw in my reasoning about why we think some things have free will and others don't, and why we think we have free will at this time, and the direction in which this debate is heading?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Indoctrination / Formation

A recurring theme for me when thinking about religion is: Although it might not be perfect, are religion's methods beneficial for society?

One of the things strong atheists really seem to dislike about religion is the indoctrination of children. It is often an emotion-based argument that children should not be lied to and forced to conform to a belief system that doesn't make sense (as, for the strong atheist, religion doesn't).

I think the idea behind this is that if children are allowed free choice in their beliefs, they will choose rationally, and since in the atheist view religion is irrational, the main reason children are religious is because their parents have forced their own views on them, sheltered them from other views, etc. So the ideals of freedom of choice, protection of children and the value of reasoned thought combine to form the view that children should not be "indoctrinated" (I've also heard the word "formation" used in about the same way by the religious, so if you're religious you may want to use that instead as it has fewer negative connotations) into a religion. And examples from cults are used to show how this can be harmful.

I'm not going to try and argue against those examples - there are clearly cases where beliefs are highly irrational, and harmful to the believers over the long term, and should not be forced on anyone, least of all children. But... religious teaching can also be a teaching of a set of values, with concrete examples. And I think that's a good thing, and I wonder if perhaps that gets missed when people condemn religious indoctrination. What I'm going to do (it turns out, after writing for a bit) is go on a bit of a side-track and come back and answer this question by analogy afterwards.

Atheists frequently compare religious beliefs to fairytales. So, why do we have fairytales, anyway? They're not just about escaping into fantasy like reading a romance novel. I read somewhere recently (may have been on the conversiondiary blog?) about trying to teach children things. At a very young age, describing real life to them in all of the detail that we see as adults is just confusing. They'll latch on to a detail, and miss the real point you're trying to get across. Even adults who are poor communicators can often run into the problem of losing the important point in a sea of detail. Think of the last time you were talking to a frustrated relative or significant other, who was frustrated with one thing that happened, and saw it connected to a history of various past frustrations, and they all come up. The person they're frustrated at may or may not see all of the same connections, and will latch on to one or two things that were said, and the conversation/fight will get off track, onto a topic that is only tangentially related to the point the person was originally trying to make. As you can see sometimes in my blog, I tend to present things in a stream of detail like the above, and I'm sure it can be confusing sometimes, which is another example where simplification might help while not being 100% accurate :). Another example: When one person I was talking to saw me do the same thing with a computer problem (explaining out in detail how a forum member could use the quotation feature, with a table of different options and a step-by-step explanation of what was going on, when "To do what you want, just copy and paste this" would have sufficed), her response was "Thanks! Now I see why you make faith so difficult, too! :)".

The point I'm trying to make here is that simplifications aren't just necessary for young children, as with fairytales, they're necessary for highly intelligent adults as well, if you want to communicate well. And that makes me wonder - even though religion as traditionally taught seems like a massive over-simplification of the truth to me, might it not be a beneficial communications strategy, and the limited conceptual understanding it communicates still be better than the atheist "Don't indoctrinate your children with anything, let them choose freely" approach?

Fairytales work because the point of them is obvious and clear, and the point they make is generally applicable to everyday life. Those stories, although not true, serve an important function in that when you run into a very complex real-life situation, someone can say "remember the prince from fairytale x" and then you at least have a starting point. In a way, fairytales are an indoctrination of certain values into our children, and if we didn't have them, the children would have no direction, no particular conceptual framework which would tell them to do things we consider good rather than bad.

Progressing on from the young child, who may not have a full understanding of the difference between real and not real stories, where do you go? Once you're clear that fairytales aren't real (and "true" stories should be valued more highly), but you have that core set of concepts (bravery, selflessness, caring for others, and many other "morals" of various stories) imprinted into your thought processes and your behaviours (which I think is no bad thing) is that sufficient, can you just move on relatively easily from simplistic "childish" fairytale-based thinking to complex "adult" thinking about the incredibly complex reality we live in?

After talking to various people on forums and things for a few months now, I don't think it works. I think the progression to more and more complex thoughts, that take into account more and more factors, is something that takes time, and requires intermediary steps.

Religion (as generally taught) is more complicated than fairytales, but simpler than actual reality. Try to teach someone what "Good" means outside of the context of religious teaching, and it's freakishly complicated. People just get lost when I try to have conversations about that sometimes, or they latch onto and elevate aspects of goodness such as utility or empathy to the level of universal goodness, something that should be followed always.

I also find that religious people who have put a lot of thought into what makes things good, and what the "true" teachings of their religion are, have come to a lot of the same conclusions I have. And it makes me wonder. I know religion is effective at communicating itself between people, which is why it is so widespread. And I know it can lead to an understanding much like my own, if someone puts a lot of thought into it. So, might religious indoctrination be regarded as a valid teaching tool? A step in the direction of a fuller understanding of the world? In that case, if the religion indoctrinates people with generally sensible morals and over-simplified stories to back them up, instead of leaving them adrift in a sea of complexity without the tools to process it all, might it not be a good thing? If so, then teaching that it is true has value in that, as I pointed out a while above, once you've dropped fairytales, you're not likely to start valuing an over-simplification unless you;'re taught that it's true.

An analogy: Teach that religion is false, and you have a wall of complexity you cannot climb. But teach that thoughtful religion can be "true" in a sense, but you have to really think about it to get at its truth, and you have a staircase placed against that wall, which people can climb to successively more complicated understandings of the truth. Destroy that staircase, and people will just search for another, to bridge the gap between a fairytale they learned in childhood and a real world that is just too complicated to fully understand. The task for thoughtful people, then, is not to destroy the staircases we have, but to improve them, and direct people away from the ones (fundamentalist religions and cults) that lead to dead ends and painful falls, and then having to look at the wall again and find another staircase. So, by analogy, indoctrination may not necessarily be a bad thing, it's just putting people at step 2 or 3 of a certain staircase, where fairytales are step 1.

Still working on a response to Brian's proof of God. But this thought struck me, and I wanted to write it down before I lost it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Updated: Brian's proof of the existence of God

Reader Brian has been kind enough to send along his proof of the existence of God. I am having a bit of a busy week, so I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but since I haven't posted much else and won't have time to go over it until the weekend, I probably shouldn't keep people waiting. I did glance through the first few pages, and it's clear I'm going to have to Google some terms, and/or take a philosophy course. Perhaps the second option... if only there were time.

Anyway, have a great week, everybody, and happy reading!

UPDATE, November 2nd: Brian e-mailed me a small addition he meant to include in this (Proposition 4a). I've added it in.

From here until the end of the post is Brian (Paladin)'s work.


Notice: the following is for entertainment purposes only. The author assumes no extraordinary liability toward the reader for mental injury or facial injuries due to boredom-induced collapse into computer keyboards, nor can the author be held accountable for any program of hair-replacement therapy necessitated by the frustrated removal of the original follicles by the reader. Besides, the author doesn't have any money to pay a lawsuit; so there.

The Necessary Existence of God?

Definition A: By "cause", this argument will mean "ontological cause", or "that which is responsible for bringing an object into existence," or "that which bestows existence to another object." (It's true that Aristotle, Aquinas, etc., suggested many types of causes; I'll be abstracting from and/or conflating them, in general. Time will tell if such a move is well-advised.)

Definition B: By "object", this argument will mean anything which in any way holds ontological existence.

Definition C: By "eternal", this argument will mean that which is completely independent of time.

Definition D: By "intrinsic [essential] existence", this argument will describe that which exists by necessity, and by its very nature; that which is causeless.

Definition E: By "extrinsic [essential] existence", this argument will describe that which is dependent upon an ontological cause for its existence; that which does not exist by necessity.


Assumptions (assumed to be self-evident):

Lemma #1: An object must exist in order to act.
Lemma #2: An object cannot use or extend that which it does not possess
(corollary to Lemma #1).


Proposition #1: No object can be its own cause.

Proof: There are only two possibilities for any object, re: causation: an object is either caused, or uncaused.

a) If an object is uncaused, then Prop. #1 is trivially true.

b) If an object is caused, then its cause must (by Lemma #1) have existed in order to enact that causation. It is therefore manifestly true that a non-existent object cannot act to bring itself (or anything else) into existence.


Proposition #2: Causation is necessarily bound to the definition of "change."

Proof: Any change is an event by which an object either loses or gains characteristics--by which an object (in one or more ways) moves from potentiality to actuality, or from actuality to potentiality. (It will be necessary, before finishing the proof, to discuss the mode of continued existence of any given object.) Since "cause" (as per definition #1) denotes an event by which an object gains ontological existence, the definition of "change" is thus satisfied. (Discussions of change regarding "loss" will be described below.)

An object's existence can be conceived as being either (a) intrinsic, by its very nature (i.e. uncaused); or (b) extrinsic (i.e. caused and maintained). It might be argued that an object could, hypothetically, be "caused, but independent (i.e. not maintained)" in the sense that it required an "initial cause", but needs no "maintenance" of that acquired existence; such a suggestion stems from a misunderstanding of--among other things--the nature of time, in that an object's existence at any given moment subsequent to its causation is dependent on its existence in prior moments (up to that moment of causation--which is then dependent on the extrinsic cause), just as surely as the existence of a 100m object is dependent upon the existence of, say, the first 99m. Such a suggestion, therefore, cannot be maintained.


Objection #1: Cannot an object have discontinuous existence? Cannot an object exist for a burst of moments, blink out of existence, and then re-appear, for an indefinite number of repetitions?

Reply #1: Even if that were possible, it would merely push the case back to smaller intervals; the very same propositions would hold for each small "segment" of existence, and each "annihilation" would require its own cause, as would any subsequent "recreation". If an object has intrinsic existence, then (by definition) it will never cease; if an
object has extrinsic existence, then it is dependent on an extrinsic cause for that existence. No object can "cycle" between existence and nonexistence by its intrinsic nature--if for no other reason than the fact that any object which ceases to exist (a) is shown to have non-intrinsic existence, and (b) would be helpless to enact its own "recreation" (cf. Lemma #1).

There are only two ways by which characteristics can be lost: by active negation (i.e. an event, force, etc., which actively cancels an existing characteristic), or by privation (i.e. by having the "maintaining source" discontinue its maintenance). Both cases require an extrinsic cause.

Similarly, there is only one way by which attributes can be gained: by extrinsic cause (since an object cannot bestow upon itself that which it does not itself possess, as per Lemma #2).

As such, any change must necessarily require a cause or causes (since change, by definition, requires the gain and/or loss of attributes--and both require extrinsic causes). Conversely, any cause (so-called) would necessitate the existence of change--at least insofar as the object being "caused" is concerned (which changes in state from potential to actual--from nonexistence to existence).


Objection #2: "There seem to be many types of change which do not require gain or loss; what is gained or lost, for example, by an object moving from position A to position B?"

Reply #2: Such an object would lose its characteristic of occupying position A (to say nothing of a possible loss of being at relative rest), and it would gain the characteristic of occupying position B (to say nothing of having gained--albeit briefly--the positions of all intermediate locations, and having lost the state of potentiality inherent in *not* moving). No change can possibly occur without gain or loss. (It should be noted that the subjective ideas of "degradation" and "improvement" have nothing especially to do with the strict definitions of "gain" (moving from potential to actual) or "loss" (moving from actual to potential); it is not the purpose of this specific proposition to explore advancement toward, or retreat from, any sort of perfection.)


Proposition #3: Given any example of change(s), one must consequently posit one or more causes.

Proof: see Proposition #2. I assert that the visible universe does, in fact, offer many such examples of change (which consequently require causes), and that such a fact is self-evident.


Proposition #4: That which has intrinsic existence in its essence must be changeless in its essence.

Proof: from Proposition #3, any change would necessitate a cause; and that which has intrinsic existence is, by definition, causeless (cf. Proposition #2); therefore, that which has intrinsic existence cannot admit of change. Or, to put the matter differently: if the statement "that which admits of change(s) must thereby require a cause" is true
(which it is, by Proposition #3), then the contrapositive of that statement is also necessarily true: "that which does not require a cause (i.e. has intrinsic existence) does not admit of change"--which is the thesis statement of Proposition #4.

Proposition #4a: Every “chain” of extrinsically caused objects must have an uncaused cause (i.e. a cause with intrinsic existence) as its ultimate source; a hypothetical “infinite regression of extrinsic causes” would be empty of content (i.e. would not exist at all).

Proof: By definition, an extrinsically caused (i.e. contingent) object does not possess existence by its nature (as would an object with intrinsic existence); it must "borrow" (i.e. "depend/subsist on") existence from its antecedent cause (see Proposition #2). If the ontological antecedent of a contingent object is itself contingent, then it must in turn "borrow" existence from its own antecedent, and so on, in turn; but if there were a hypothetical infinite string of consecutive "ontological causes", none of which possessed ontological existence in and of itself (but which was dependent on its ontological antecedent), then the total ontological content of that string would be "... + 0 + 0 + 0 + ...", without reaching a term of actual value (i.e. the total content would be "0").

Illustrations for this idea abound, but here's a popular one: picture a string of people going to see a movie, and passing the ticket booth; and picture each successive person, when asked to pay for a ticket, point to the person in back, saying: "He'll pay for me!" If the string of movie-goers were infinite, the ticket-taker would never get paid.


Objection #3: "Cannot an object exist intrinsically in its essence, but extrinsically in its accidents and/or attendant attributes? In other words, cannot an object with intrinsic existence somehow contain accidental attributes which are extrinsic, and therefore subject to change?"

Reply #3: That question is not germane to the issue at hand; the only objection which could have weight against proposition #4 would be an instance where an object with intrinsic ESSENTIAL existence was subject to change in that essence. It is enough to say that, if there were (hypothetically) attendant accidents to an object with intrinsic essential existence, they would themselves require causes to the extent that they existed extrinsically, and certainly to the extent that they exhibited change.


Proposition #5: That which has intrinsic essential existence must necessarily be eternal in its essence.

Proof: Change, by its very nature, necessitates time, and vice-versa. Time is a dimension of space which has meaning (and even existence) only when some manner of change exists; functionally, time is a measure of change, and it cannot operate on that in which there is no change against which progress could be measured. Since that which has intrinsic existence is changeless by definition, it must necessarily be immune to time, and therefore eternal (by definition).


Proposition #6: Any uncaused cause must be eternal and unchanging in its essence; its essential existence must be utterly beyond space/time.

Proof: see Propositions #4 and 5. Note that the pseudo-converse of this proposition (i.e. "that which is in eternity must have intrinsic essential existence") is not necessarily true (and is known, by Divine Revelation, to be false: e.g. angels).


Objection #4: "These arguments depend entirely on the idea that objects are strictly simple ones--that each object is the result of only one cause. This cannot be maintained, since any composite object will necessarily have component parts which need causes--possibly from many different venues (e.g. color, shape, etc.)."

Reply #4: The above propositions are most easily applied to simple objects; that is true. However, composite objects are--by definition--reducible to simple parts, which themselves would be described by these propositions. Consider, also, that even a composite object *can* have a single ontological cause (though it need not), which would be covered under these scenarios.


Objection #5: "Some attributes of composite objects simply can't be 'parsed' like that; how, for example, could we speak of a cause for an apple's shape, another cause for its redness, another for its rigidity, etc.? It's equivocal to say that 'the apple exists', when in fact its shape, color, rigidity, etc., all exist as well."

Reply #5: This may well be a shortcoming of my argument due to a neglect of the various types of causes; a formal cause, for example, could well differ from an accidental cause or a material cause, and so on. However, the same principle holds: every "caused" object (be that object a "physical object" as considered by common idiom, or a single
attribute of any such object--which is an "object" in the sense of that which holds ontological existence, and has a cause which answers the question "WHY is that so?") must trace itself to an ultimately uncaused cause.


Proposition #7: Any uncaused cause will necessarily be identical with its very existence (i.e. its essence and existence must be equivalent).

Proof: First, consider three aspects of any object: (a) the object itself, (b) the object’s existence, and (c) the object’s reason for existence. When considering an uncaused cause, the reason for its existence is, by definition, contained within itself—i.e. it exists by its very nature. Thus, (b) = (c). It remains to be demonstrated that (a) = (c), which would consequently show that (a) = (b).

All objects have a "reason for existence" [hereafter: "reason"]; that reason would be either external (if the object is contingent) or internal (if the object is uncaused). Given that the reason for an uncaused cause is necessarily internal to it[self], this leaves three situational comparisons:

(#1) The object's reason exceeds the object.
(#2) The object exceeds its reason.
(#3) The object is identical to its reason.

Situation #1 would entail a contradiction of the definitions of "uncaused" and "internal", since a reason cannot be contained in (i.e. "internal to") its object if the reason exceeds that object.

Situation #2 would entail "parts" of the object which were distinct from the reason itself (i.e. which were not in the "province" of the reason); as such, those "remainder aspects" would be contingent on the (internal but distinct) reason, and would thereby "disqualify" themselves from "membership" in the utterly non-contingent, uncaused cause.

Therefore, #3 is the only situation which does not prove itself to be absurd. As such, (a) = (c), which necessitates that (a) = (b).


Objection #6: "Could it not be possible to speak of multiple "reasons" for an object's existence? For example, would it not be valid to suggest that a biological mother AND father would be reasons for a child's existence?

Reply #6: It is certainly possible to speak of multiple reasons for existence… provided that we are speaking of contingent objects (e.g. the child in question would have far more reasons for existence: proper temperature for survival, adequate food supply, etc.), but it's quite beside the point in this case. Even if a plurality of reasons within an uncaused cause were possible (and that will be shown to be untenable), the main issue of this idea is whether or not the reason(s) is(are)
INTERNAL or EXTERNAL to the object itself; the very same scenarios (a,b, and c, from proposition #7) would apply; the only difference would be that any multiple reasons, as a collective whole, would be identical to the object itself.


Proposition #8: Any uncaused cause will necessarily be identical with existence itself.

Proof: By proposition #7, any uncaused cause is identical to its own existence. In addition, all contingent objects have existence which is not theirs by nature; despite temporal illusions to the contrary, no contingent object is "given" existence in any essential way, as if it were somehow given existence apart from its cause (ref: Proposition #2).
A contingent object is no less contingent (i.e. dependent on its cause for existence) during any subsequent point in time than it is at its temporal beginning.

Since the sum-total of contingent existence (as reflected in the sum-total of existing contingent objects—we can call it “C”) is within (and "borrowed from") the uncaused cause (since no contingent object has existence in and of itself, but relies on the existence of its cause), and since the totality of existence (we can call this “T”) entails the union of contingent existence (“C”) and intrinsic existence (we can call this “I”); then that totality (“T”) of existence is identical to the uncaused cause itself (see Proposition #7).

Objection #7: Why can there not be several uncaused causes, which would entail SEVERAL sources of existence (rather than just one)? Wouldn't that undermine the equivalence of "uncaused cause" and "existence"?

Reply #7: This question anticipates Proposition #10; but again, it is beside this particular point. If, hypothetically, there were several uncaused causes, then it would still be necessarily true for the uncaused causes, as a collective, to be equivalent to existence as such, given the equivalence between an uncaused cause's reason and its existence, and given the utter lack of existence contained per se in the non-intrinsically-existing objects.


Proposition #9: Any uncaused cause (i.e. whose essential existence is intrinsic) must be unlimited in all respects.

Proof: Limitation, per se, is the extent to which something does not exist. For example: that which exists as a 4'-radius sphere does not exist beyond that radius; or, that which occupies 1 cubic foot of space at point X does not exist thusly at any point Y beyond the boundaries of that enclosed space; etc. That which exists in every way would necessarily be unlimited in every way; and that which was utterly unlimited would enjoy the fullness of existence.

Here is an alternate way to demonstrate the same idea: it is true that all "limited" objects must be caused, since any object which is limited cannot be identified with existence as such, and cannot contain its own reason for existence (as would be necessary with any uncaused object--see Props. #7,8). This establishes the conditional statement: "that which is limited, is caused." Given that this is a true statement, then its contrapositive must necessarily be true, which
reads: "that which is uncaused, is unlimited."


Objection #8: What of the aspects of reality which do not seem to imply lack? You wouldn't say that a male was limited in his existence to the extent that he wasn't female, would you? If so, then which one out of a man and woman would be limited by not being the other gender? In short: what about the cases where two seemingly "existing" things are mutually exclusive?

Reply #8: Again, as per reply #2, it is not the purpose of this proposition to make affective or subjective judgments about any given object. It is certainly true that a male simply does not have the faculties of a female, and vice versa... but any criticism of that state of affairs remains a subjective one; the fact that a male lacks female attributes, etc., is still a fact. It does not mean to imply that a male is not functioning properly by failing, for example, to be female. It merely shows one of many evidences that prove the limitation and non-universality of any contingent object.

In the case of a square and a circle, for example, one might say that a square could be a perfect square--and a circle could be a perfect circle--without containing the attributes of one another. While this is true, it is quite beside the point; save to give further proof of the limitations and non-universality of both.

It might help to consider the following: any order of being which holds mutually exclusive possibilities must be limited, by definition. There is no question of any circle, no matter how large, being unlimited in all respects, for example; its "circleness" requires a center and constant radius, or else it ceases to be a circle altogether. Its very
definition requires limitations.


Proposition #10: An uncaused cause cannot admit of plurality of nature (i.e. there cannot be more than one uncaused cause).

Proof: It is a truism in logic that any two objects which fail to differ in any way whatsoever are, in fact, the same object. If we can show that any two hypothetical "uncaused causes" do not differ in any way whatever (or if we can show directly that the two are identical), then that will suffice to show the uniqueness and singularity of the uncaused cause. (Note that this method can be extended to cover an arbitrary number of uncaused causes.)

Suppose (A) and (B) are uncaused causes. This implies that (A) is identical with existence (E) as such, and (B) is identical with existence (E) as such. It cannot be true that two objects which identity with existence, per se, admit of any differences whatever. Thus, since A = E and B = E, we conclude that A = B.


Conclusion: Here is the argument, thus far:

1) No object can be its own cause.
2) Causation implies change, and vice versa.
3) Any uncaused object is necessarily eternal.
4) Any uncaused cause is equivalent to existence per se.
5) Any uncaused cause must be unlimited and unique.
6) Our universe contains examples of changeable, non-eternal objects.
7) Ergo, an uncaused cause is required, as per #3-5.

Since it is self-evident that there exist both instances of change and
limited (i.e. contingent) objects, there must necessarily exist a cause
for these (i.e. to cause the change, and to be a source of existence for
the contingent objects) which is itself uncaused, eternal, unlimited,
unique, and identical to existence itself... and this we call God.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Ok, I wasn't going to blog more until I had responded to Brian's and Jackie's comments, but this is pretty freakin' cool.

That whole thing with Paul, started out because I wanted to show someone who was strongly pro-life that there was more common ground with pro-choice people than he thought. That we weren't, ya know, pure evil incarnate. And, when Paul decided to suggest killing liberals, I realized that wasn't going to happen, with him anyway. But over the past couple of weeks, I've been having a very similar conversation over on --> Philosophy --> "How to make abortions rare". And now, after two weeks of trying (which is why I haven't been blogging here much) I've gotten through to the main proponent of the pro-life side in that debate - screen name QuestionMark, and also proponent of capital punishment for a whole range of things, not least sex outside of marriage. So not exactly on the same page as me in a lot of ways. But...

But I had something of a revelation over the past few days, and I think I agree with you(as I did before, but now more heartily and confidently) that we must cooperate on eliminating abortion.


Ok, I'm going to go do something non-internet with the rest of my night.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm back

Some may be wondering why I've been mysteriously silent for two weeks (I'm not normally silent :) ) I've been on a holiday to Europe (London, Copenhagen and Paris). But I'm back now. It will be a few days before I get everything in order and have time to blog (there is no food in the fridge and I have no clean clothes) but I'm looking forward to responding to the comments I've received. I've only skimmed them while away, but they seem very thoughtful (thanks for putting in the work) and interesting, and I'm just itching to respond. Priorities, though. Unfortunately I have to pay bills and wash clothes...

Back in a few days :)

UPDATE: I'm going to hold off on new blog entries until I've responded to Brian's comments on this post and Jackie's comments on this post, as they have lots of material to go through.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My thoughts on the value of life

Related to last week's post on the blurring line between animal and human, I thought I'd put up my thoughts on how life should be valued. This is from a conversation with Brian (Paladin, commenter on my post some people scare me) a few weeks ago over on Paul's blog, where he accused pro-choice people of all kinds of nastiness, and put up all kinds of mistaken ideas about why pro-choice people act the way they do. The post is called "Choice still means abortion". (Not to say that SOME pro-choice people act in ways Paul describes, but the implication was we should all be tarred with the same brush). He seemed to think that everyone knows he's right, they just deny it because they would like to keep their "murderous" lifestyle out of materialistic selfishness (children are inconvenient, and we like our flat-screen TVs).

Anyway, I felt I had to step in and correct some of the misconceptions expressed there, and in the process I ended up explaining how I value different kinds of life. Thought it might be interesting to get people's thoughts and reactions on it. Here you go.

I just ask that where possible people broaden their idea of what might be valuable, and don't abort without a REALLY good reason.

Just to play devil's advocate: why not?

Me (Context: Brian had said above that I was basing my answers on subjective emotion, and that just wouldn't do if I wanted to take a firm position against anything):
My conscience tells me that doing so is objectively wrong. You may call it subjective if you like, but I do not view it so.

Brian then went on to talk about various trivial reasons why one could have an abortion, up to and including the desire to look good in a bathing suit, which apparently was one person's reason (according to a court case he found). And then said:

Are you suggesting that abortion for such trivial reasons would be wrong?


Yes. My position is this:

1. Harming any form of life unnecessarily is wrong. (Life should be respected wherever possible).

2. Different forms of life have different intrinsic values, based on level of consciousness, and harming higher-value life is wrong to a greater degree than lower value life. Which is what makes it morally acceptable to eat vegetables in order to stay alive, and potentially meat animals as well, although the more I learn about them the more I think I should be a vegetarian. But destroying plants for no reason is wrong, but not as wrong as killing animals or humans for no reason.

3. The degree to which harming life is wrong scales not just with the intrinsic value of the life involved, but also with the level of harm involved. So, subjecting myself to harm to save an animal's life would be ethically right in general, depending on the level of harm involved. By the same principle, if killing of any form of life is required, killing slowly and painfully is more wrong than quickly and painlessly.

4. Another factor is the potential for growth into a higher form of life. So, for example, a human zygote would be of greater value than a fish zygote.

5. To me, it seems that a human zygote, although it has a potential to become a higher form of life, is a relatively low form of life, and therefore abortion should not be termed murder. Without a detailed knowledge of biology, I cannot attempt to place an exact value on it, so my position is to avoid abortion wherever possible.

6. Killing is simply one of the most extreme forms of harm, to be factored into the overall wrongness of the act. In extreme cases, known harm to human beings can be used to justify the killing human zygotes, and potentially relatively undeveloped human fetuses. If the harm to a confirmed human being is extreme (the mother's life is at risk, for example) the mother's life takes precedence over that of the fetus, unless she indicates that she would prefer otherwise.

What I'm saying is, abortion isn't "right" in my view, as it does involve killing life. But there are isolated times when it can be less wrong than the alternatives, and therefore in a sense the right choice.

I know, it seems like I've made up a complicated value system to determine right from wrong. But please keep in mind I've done so based on my conscience which I believe to be reliable, and to me the Church's value system seems just as made up, but is not as much in accord with my conscience. In fact, whenever I've gone into a church, belief in the simplified model of God they have presented seemed very much wrong, which is why I've always left.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

The line between humans and other animals

The line we draw between ourselves and other animals has always seemed a little bit artificial and arbitrary to me, kind of like the lines we used to draw between the various races and ethnic groups we now recognize to be part of the common race of Humanity.

I was listening to the BBC's Culture Shock radio program recently, and they were talking about the Great Ape Project. I hadn't heard of it, but what it aims to do is to push people to think about that line between humans and animals, and to recognize how close our kinship really is to the other great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas). They are pushing for something similar to the declaration of human rights to apply to all great apes (humans are also classified as great apes), or what they call "the community of equals". Their declaration seeks to guarantee the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture for all great apes.

The Great Ape Project claims that:

The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.

I had heard before that great apes could teach each other language. They can learn American Sign Language, and then use it to communicate with humans, and once they have learned it they have been observed teaching it to their children. And I had heard that they grieve in the same way as we do when a member of their community is killed. I read about a center where people are providing post-traumatic counelling to great apes rescued from poachers, who have often been mistreated. There have been cases where, if a young great ape's parents are killed in front of it, it will go into what for all appearances is shock, stop eating, and die. (Can't find a link to it, unfortunately)

Christianity holds that we as human beings have a special place above all other life. But what careful investigation is showing more and more is that some forms of life at least are much more similar to us than we used to think, and it might be wrong to treat them as "others". The worst atrocities in our history involved treating other human beings as inhuman, unlike "us", not sharing our special status. But if great apes are thinking creatures, shouldn't they be treated with an equal level of respect?

I wonder, if in response to this, anyone who is religious is going to think "But we have souls, animals don't", or something similar. If anyone reading this is thinking that, I would like to ask you two questions:

1. What evidence do you have that human beings have souls?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for (1), what evidence do you have that no other form of life whatsoever has a soul? If God gave us souls, why must we be the only ones?

[UPDATE: This post was written almost two weeks ago, just scheduled to publish now because I knew I wouldn't be blogging for a couple of weeks but still wanted some content out there. After it was written, I had a conversation with Paul, where his response was "Of course everything has a soul, that's what makes it alive. It's just that humans have immortal souls.

So, revised questions for those who believe everything has a soul, but humans are the only ones that have immortal ones:

1. What evidence do you have that everything has a soul?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for this, what evidence do you have that the human soul is immortal?
3. If you have sufficient evidence for 1 and 2, what evidence do you have that we're the only ones?

Truthfully, the whole idea of the soul seems very tenuous to me, and I'm wondering why people believe it, aside from that it would be nice if it was true...].

In order to dehumanize great apes on the basis of the idea of the soul, you would have to prove both 1 and 2 [UPDATE: or 1, 2, and 3] conclusively. If you think your line of reasoning is probable, but you can't prove it conclusively, I have another question:

Do you want to risk shrugging off the killing of something that might have a soul[/immortal soul]?

On the basis of scientific evidence, the Spanish parliament has now endorsed the Great Ape Project's declaration, and the great ape project is continuing to push for it to be more widely adopted.

Questions to think about (and answer in the comments if you like):

1. How much of a distinction should we draw between humans and other animals?
2. What do you base your answer on?
3. What are the moral implications of your position?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paul's response to "conscience comes first"

Ok, as I said in my last post, I'm no longer a big fan of Paul. But, I did say I'd discuss his response, if I could get him to give one. This post was written on Tuesday, before he started suggesting liberals should be killed, so it's less biased than it would be if I wrote it later in the week.


As I said I would, I asked Paul what he thought of the idea that conscience might guide us to what's right, rather than what feels good. His response was to tell me to read some of his more recent posts, and the comment-conversations in those posts would make his position clearer. I have started to do this, and found one which qualifies.

In a post called "It's really very simple", in May of 2008, Paul is talking about how some famous supporters of abortion have been allowed to receive communion in a mass conducted by the pope. To him, this means (I think...) that either abortion is in fact correct in the eyes of the church, or the bishops are negligent. Not that the bishops might genuinely act in a way that is wrong (impossible), but that it must be that either his understanding of "wrong" is wrong, or the bishops just didn't realize what they were doing.

His response when pressed on this by a commenter who was not familiar with how the Catholic church works was interesting. The question was:

3. If your current bishop appears to violate cannon law, are you obligated to follow that bishop? Or can you follow a bishop with a different diocese that you consider more faithful?

and Paul responded:

3. No. My bishop is my bishop. The only appeal from my bishop is to the Bishop of Rome.

But the important question is not who best conforms to what I "consider more faithful". The question is what's true. I am not competent to judge the compliance of my bishop with canon law, much less the compliance of the entire national bishops' conference. As a layman and a regular guy, I look to them, not my own conscience, to be taught the truth. And what I am taught by them is that there is no conflict between support for abortion and being in full communion with the Church.

Because if there were such a conflict, to do so would place in jeopardy the soul of the person receiving unworthily, and would give scandal to the faithful. Surely my bishop, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago (who also happens to be President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), nor any other bishop would not tolerate such an occurrence to be repeated every Sunday within his jurisdiction.

Therefore, since even the Holy Father tolerated the reception of communion by famous pro-abortion politicians at masses at which he was the principle celebrant, clearly there can be no conflict.

So, Paul and I have a fundamental disagreement. Paul trusts his church leaders more than his conscience. Question to anyone for whom this is true: If you can't trust your conscience, how can you know you've chosen the "true" church, and should accept the positions taken by its leaders? I don't get it, and the fact that you have no basis to question your leaders seems to create a rather large opportunity for abuse of power.

I will give him one thing, though: if he has another way of determining the truth of the church, his position that conscience is not primary would be logically consistent (not necessarily correct, but not inconsistent). Many people would waffle, and he doesn't. I just wonder what his non-conscience truth-finder is...

Short break from blogging


I'll be taking a short break from blogging (for a week or two). I've got some posts ready to auto-publish (for today and the next 2 Saturdays at 5:00 PM local time) but I may not be around to moderate comments. Re: the conversations I've been having with commenter Paladin, I think I'm going to copy some of the comments over here from Paul's site, as well as much of the conversation that I've had with user UncleE on (a great, open, non-millitant forum. Many atheists/agnostics, but also a significant minority of users are religious.) UncleE is also the creater of the blog "Inner and Outer Space", which I follow and is in the right hand sidebar.

The material from these two conversations will give Paladin and I a starting point for continued discussion, and anyone else who likes can join in. I'm not sure I'll be able to get it up before my blog-break, but I'll try.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Coolest. Site. Ever

For the past three weeks, I've been going to this thing in my local area called Cinema Politica. It's a very left-wing crowd, watching documentaries and then discussing them. I'm sympathetic to the left wing politically, but I really do wish (as a business school graduate) that more of them had a clue about economics sometimes. But the conversation is interesting nonetheless, and my differing background lets me contribute, so I guess that's OK.

Anyway, through this group, I've been pointed to possibly the coolest site ever. I really enjoys me some good documentary, and here you can watch them for free! And download, again for free. Wicked-awesome!

That's right, I'm that much of an information geek :)

The Cinema Politica this week showed one "The War on Democracy". Economic conservatives might want to jump to the conclusion it's just left-wing crap, but I think it's worth a watch. Talked about Latin American history from the 60's onward, focusing on the development of the democratic/populist movements in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Fourth from the top on the website.

I expect I'll be blogging about some of the films I watch, and the discussions I have at the Cinema Politica meetings, over on my other blog for non-religious things (also linked in the left-hand sidbar.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some poeple scare me

I shouldn't be blogging at work, but this is fairly major.

Paul, the guy who provided the excellent critique of the "conscience comes first" argument, is more extreme than I thought. I knew he had a very strong opinion against abortion (if you're pro-life, it's hard not to). I tried to explain the pro choice position as calmly as I could. He called me an animal, a hypocrite and a murderer, but I let it pass, because I wanted to demonstrate that I am a fundamentally reasonable person, and that a lot of the stereotypes he seemed to hold about pro-choice people were not correct.

Here's a link to his site, but I'm removing all direct links to posts on his site, because... well, today, he posted this (I've posted the full blog entry he made, current as of 3:45 PM local time on the 18th, so I can't be accused of taking things out of context. But it is rather long, sorry...):

Liberals are bastards. Every damned one of them.

They are despicable, dishonest, hypocritical scum. They kill babies, even after birth, and by the millions before birth, and celebrate it as a right.

There are no depths to which they will not sink to gain power. They are whores and pimps, liars and thieves. They care for nothing but their own pleasure and their own power.

They care nothing for the rule of law, nor for the innocents they hurt.

People who celebrate the killing of babies will do anything. They are beneath contempt:

They'll even break into private email accounts and publicize what they find:
Sometime early this morning, between approximately 3:00am - 4:00am, members of an infamous group of hackers broke into Gov. Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo e-mail account. The incriminating discussion threads included screenshots of Palin’s e-mail and private e-mail addresses of her contacts. The threads have since been deleted.

Hacking e-mail is a federal crime. A TV anchor who broke into his colleague’s e-mail account recently pleaded guilty and faces a maximum five years in prison.

The law will catch up to the hackers, but what about the lowlifes who are now gleefully splashing the alleged contents of Palin’s private e-mail account all over the Internet?

The Gawker smear machine — see here for all the background you need — has posted private family photos of Palin’s children that were apparently stolen from the e-mail account.

They have used Bristol Palin’s illegally obtained private cell phone number from her mom’s private account, recorded her voicemail message, and posted it on their website.

They have reprinted her husband Todd’s private e-mail address and son Track’s private e-mail address.

You think this is just a harmless prank? Those of you who have had to deal with break-ins and identity theft know exactly what a burdensome process it is to recover from crimes like this.

Gawker knowingly and deliberately published illegally obtained photos of the Palin children.

Where are the privacy absolutists now?

You think Palin Derangement Syndrome is bad now? These by-any-means-necessary lunatics are just warming up.

Bastards. Bastards all.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "silence is the truest herald of rage, I should be but little angry if I could say how much."

The culture war is a real war. Like the war against Islamic terrorism, we didn't choose this war, our enemies declared it on us, without provocation or warning, and they are implacable and merciless.

Over at DailyKos, diarists and commenters are delighted:
When Sarah Palin and McCain decided to run on a platform that splits America between the "elites" and the rest of decent America, the gauntlet was thrown down - and it looks like some techie - most likely an urban one, broke into her email account at Yahoo. The account was deleted - which could get interesting if there were emails relating to one of her numerous scandals, but there are screen shots out there to gaze upon...

I have no pity for this woman - I hope she's destroyed by the media she first disdained and then hid from. McCain is playing a nasty game, aiming to rip this nation into red and blue in an effort to get his chance at the wheel. There was a time I respected him - but that was a long time ago...

Another commenter had this to say

maybe this is the excuse they'll use to drop her. they arent smart but they are sneaky.

Athough this commenter seems to have a clue:
This isn't the gov.sarah account she used for government business, this appears to be a different account. gov.palin, and it appears it was just her personal e-mail account for private purposes, so really there's nothing to talk about, and an invasion of privacy.

It is legit, it was hacked, but it is her personal e-mail, nothing to do with politics, and is only gonna get democrats in trouble if they jump on it.

But here's another despicable hacking fan:

Exactly this hack may make a lost of pols re-think this shit. Sorry times are too tough, and Palin/Cheney's view of gov. is too extreme to play by the rules. I suspect Palin was targeted bc of how she harasses bloggers in Alaska. She's a scary vindictive, dictatorial woman.

This one is "not sure he approves", but after all, she really deserved what she got.

Hackers can do amazing things. I'm not sure if I approve of this intentional invasion of her personal email account. That being said, she did leave herself open for this by using the account for official business. Doesn't make the hacking right, but it could have been avoided

If Palin had been raped in the street, these sub-humans would have been there cheering. And joining in.

Southern Appeal comments.

Wired has more coverage. Notice the quality of the comments there, as well.

This is a war, and it has no limits. Liberals target children, they care nothing for laws, for decency, or for civilization. They lie, they undermine the institutions of our nation and our culture, and they want to indocrinate our children. They deserve nothing but contempt. Their homes should be sprayed with toxic chemicals just as we do to mosquitoes. We should make no distinction between the worst of them and those who share their political platform. They all have fleas.

This is the last straw.

UPDATE: RedState comments:
this angered me, until one of my fellow Contributors reminded me of a little, small, surely insignificant detail that apparently everyone involved with hacking the account, publishing the hack, and favorably publicizing the hack seem to have forgotten. Sarah Palin is now under the protection of the United States Secret Service, which means that they are going to very interested in this attack.

Let me put this succinctly: everybody who had a hand in this is [expletive deleted]ed.

Have a nice day!

Which might be the opposite reaction to mine. Or at least 90 degrees off from mine.

Michelle Malkin has more details on how it happened, including a confession from the guy who did it!

And The Atlantic's pride and joy, the increasingly despicable Andrew Sullivan, America's foremost sodomite, approves. He appears to think this a normal and appropriate part of the political process.

I agree that it's wrong to hack into someone's computer and steal personal records, but... What scares me is this:

They deserve nothing but contempt. Their homes should be sprayed with toxic chemicals just as we do to mosquitoes. We should make no distinction between the worst of them and those who share their political platform.

And I'm a liberal. And I've just spent several days speaking that viewpoint on a site where (the comments on the above post indicate) people agree with him that liberals should be killed. And the post immediately before this one had several paragraphs discussing me, specifically.

This is why abortion is tough to talk about. Because people are scared for their own safety. And I'm sorry to say, now I am too. So, no direct links to this guy's site (because the backlink feature will lead people to me who might do more than threaten), and no more conversation over there.

I had actually gotten into quite an in-depth conversation with the co-owner of the blog (screen name Paladin), and ending that mid-way through makes me sad. But I will not participate in a site where someone is encouraging people to kill me.

I don't know how much anyone can influence this guy, but I hope that some people (particularly pro-life Catholics, who he might listen to more) will join me in expressing to him the fact that encouraging people to kill each other is a bad idea.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Response to "When Faith Fits"

This is a continuation of this post, where I found something that poses a challenge to my "put conscience first" idea.

First, I'd like to say that I agree with most of what Paul was saying. I would 100% agree with the following revised paragraphs:

But in deciding to which faith to adhere, I believe a seeker should never succumb to the temptation of drifting towards what is comfortable. It's OK to say, "my body is fine just the way it is, and I'm going to buy a suit to fit it!" But how wise is it to assert, "[some text removed] I will choose a faith that conforms to me"?

What's the point? If I am an erring, sinning human being, I should want to find the faith that teaches what's true, no matter how much that truth challenges me, no matter how ill-suited it may be initially, and I should try to conform myself to that truth. Unless I am already a saint with no room for improvement, I should think suspect any religion whose entire teaching fit me comfortably.

In other words, I think there is a legitimate objection to just choosing whatever faith feels good. But, as the title to the previous post implies, there's a difference between when something feels good and when something feels right. More on this later. First, the small part that I don't agree with, and an explanation of why.

The part I removed from the quote above is:
my soul is fine the way it is, my conscience is properly formed, and

So, why can't I agree with that bit?

1. My soul is fine the way it is: I'm not sure we have souls. I expect when we die, we're quite dead. So I wouldn't assert my soul is fine, but I wouldn't assert it's not fine, either, and this sentence implies that my soul is not fine without the help of the true religion, so I can't agree with it. But really, if you want to assert that you have a soul and that it is/is not fine... well, OK, go ahead, I suppose. It's secondary to the argument I'm going to make on this site.

2. My conscience is properly formed: This is the core bit. The question is, where does your conscience come from? How is it formed? If it's formed by God (possibly through evolution, in my view, but others can have different ones - either way, by God, however you'd like to conceive God) then it at least starts out perfect, and can potentially (unless later corrupted in some way) act as a good guide. If it's formed by your experiences, or by some other morally neutral process, however, then there is no reason to suggest that it is a good guide.

In other words, if your conscience starts out imperfect and must be reformed by religion, then it can't have come from God for the purpose of guiding you towards truth, it must have come from somewhere else and serve some other purpose. If your conscience starts out perfect but can be corrupted to the point where it will guide you in completely the wrong direction, I would seriously question whether it came from God, and whether its purpose is to guide you to truth. At that point, your conscience is basically meaningless and ought to be ignored in favor of other guides to truth (although I am not sure what those might be).

I think that even if you spend a long time telling yourself self-justifying lies and living a life that does not conform to your conscience (and so beat it down and cause it to fall nearly silent) it is still there, and still pointing you in the right direction. Someone might say "but Hitler and Pol Pot and Stalin thought they were great people doing fundamentally good things. Surely this is evidence that their consciences were not reliable, and thus conscience can be corrupted!". I think if Hitler et. al. had sat back and deeply reflected on what they were doing, they would have realized it was wrong. The fact that we can tell ourselves lies, and ignore our conscience when it tries to tell us the truth, doesn't mean we've lost the ability to tell truth from lies. You can stop questioning what you believe, and thus think it to be true when it's not. You can choose not to think, and just go with the examples you see around you. But if you start questioning again, your conscience will still be there, and still pointing you towards the truth, if only weakly. If you tell yourself a lie, I think if you are honest with yourself later, you will see the lie you told for what it is. So my position on conscience is I think that my conscience is properly formed, and that it can be temporarily silenced, or ignored, but not corrupted.

Question to anyone who is religious and disagrees with me: Your disagreement implies you don't trust your conscience to guide you. So, what do you trust instead (that must also have existed before you adopted your religion)? What other measure of truth can you use?

Moving on. Does my foundational belief that my conscience is properly formed mean I should go with "the religion that feels good"?

My answer is no. There's a distinction between what feels good and what feels right.

To illustrate the distinction, here are some things that feel good to me, but don't feel right:
- It would feel very good to be a part of a church. The sense of community you get there feels great. But every time I go into a church, I get this feeling of wrongness and have to leave.
- It feels great when I think I'm smarter than someone else, or I've accomplished something really amazing, or someone compliments me and I think "maybe they're right!" Pride, in other words, feels great. But it doesn't feel right. There's always this sense I have that I should be humble, and that I should give the people around me credit, because they're probably just as "good" as I am, even though I'd like to put myself above them sometimes.
- Hearing someone say that I'm right about something feels good. But... perhaps this is just something I've trained myself to do, but I get this sense that I should always ask "but is that really true?". It feels good to accept the agreement of others, but I get the sense that doing so might lead me astray, there's a part of my conscience (at least I think it's my conscience) that says it's wrong to think agreement/consensus confirms truth.

So, I can agree with part of what Paul is trying to say. If your objective is to find a religion that conforms to you (lets you feel good about yourself, gives you the sense that you're in a community that agrees with you, etc.) you can easily be lead astray. But, if instead of looking for a religion that feels good, you're looking for a religion that feels right, I think that can work.

Using the suit analogy, you're ultimately looking for a suit that makes you look good. But let's say you're fat and lazy, and you have horrible posture, and no muscular development, so that if you keep on the way you are going you will end up in a wheelchair eventually. This is what Paul was getting at when he talked about things not being well formed. Maybe a suit that fits you in your current form, and makes you feel good about your current self, isn't what you should be looking for. Maybe, instead, what you should be looking for is a suit that makes you look the best you could possibly look. Maybe you should be looking at people who have exercised and worked hard to be the best looking they can possibly be, and strive to be the best you can. And choosing a suit that fits the person you want to be, rather than the person you are, is what you should be doing, and then working to fit into that suit.

But there's an underlying assumption here. The assumption is that everyone can look at themselves in the mirror and tell the difference between ugly and beautiful. That there is some objective thing called beauty that exists outside of anyone's individual opinion or pride or feeling of goodness about themselves, and the ability to recognize that cannot be corrupted, and its conclusions aren't arbitrary or a matter of personal opinion.

Whether that is true in the case of beauty is doubtful. But, logically, in order to make the case that you shouldn't choose a suit that fits your current form, you must have a reliable understanding of beauty, it can't just be subjective. And in order to make the case that you shouldn't choose the religion that fits your current form, but instead the one that conforms to the objective thing called truth, you must have the ability to recognize truth when you encounter it, somehow. In my opinion, your conscience is the how, and saying you can't choose your religion based on what your conscience says defeats the argument that you shouldn't just choose what feels good. By including "what your conscience says" in "what makes religion feel good", Paul was mixing up two definitions of "good".

Since being guided by your conscience doesn't always make you feel good about yourself, you can use it to choose a religion that doesn't fit, but is right and will be the best for you in the end. But if you assume your conscience might not be well formed, I don't see how you can choose a religion at all, aside from whichever one gives you the warmest fuzziest feeling about yourself.

I'm going to let Paul know I've written this, and see if he has a response.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The difference between what feels good and what feels right

I was reading a post by Paul, just this guy, you know? called "When faith fits". It's from a few years ago, but it brings up a point which I'm sure somebody is going to bring up about my "Conscience comes first" idea.

The basic thing he's trying to say is, you can't just choose a religion because it suits you. If there is such a thing as objective truth, then you need to be looking for the religion that represents that truth, even if you don't like it.

The paragraphs that best encapsulate this, and directly challenge the argument I have made here, are:

But in deciding to which faith to adhere, I believe a seeker should never succumb to the temptation of drifting towards what is comfortable. It's OK to say, "my body is fine just the way it is, and I'm going to buy a suit to fit it!" But how wise is it to assert, "my soul is fine the way it is, my conscience is properly formed, and I will choose a faith that conforms to me"?

What's the point? If I am an erring, sinning human being, I should want to find the faith that teaches what's true, no matter how much that truth challenges me, no matter how ill-suited it may be initially, and I should try to conform myself to that truth. Unless I am already a saint with no room for improvement, I should think suspect any religion whose entire teaching fit me comfortably.

(Emphasis mine)

Its very tricky to tell, sometimes, what is "your conscience" telling you that a particular religion is right or wrong, and what is just your past history and biases.

You might think I have an instant, pre-thought-out response to this challenge. But I have just read this post today, five minutes before I started writing this. I have a sense that when I think about it some more, I'll have an answer, but I don't know what that answer is yet. I was going to just start writing and see what came out (writing and thinking come simultaneously to me - writing things down is a technique I use to think things through) but this is an important question, and maybe I'll write in private first. I'm going to think about it, and that will be Saturday's post.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Someone else's "Spiritual quest"

I was just reading something else today that made me feel lucky.

Well, several things, really. But just now (before I started writing this), I was reading a blog post by Amy of asking, searching, knocking. She's trying to work out what she should think about God, whether she should have faith, and if so why she finds it difficult, etc. She's turned off comments on her blog, understandably, because she wants to try and tune out the outside interference for a while. So I can't comment directly on her blog itself, but after reading her last post I'd like to, so I'm going to put it here.

Here's what she said that made me want to write something in response:

Part of my struggle is, how honest do I want to be here? Some of my honesty is pretty ugly, which causes me to think, yikes, I don't really want everybody to see how petty and bitchy and just plain stupid I can be.

At the same time, I don't want to play it like this spiritual quest I'm on is all even-keel and progressing in a logical, orderly fashion when that simply isn't the case. I seem to take a baby step forward, and then twelve steps backward. Things are looking pretty positive one day, and the next it's all gone to shit. Whether I like it or not, that's the way it's going for me, and to pretend it isn't, well... if I'm just going to make stuff up, why document it in the first place?

This blog is about my stormy relationship with God. I'm not always going to be nice about it. So in the end, what I'm going for is honesty, however bad/insane/idiotic that makes me look. Because maybe someone else is going through something similar, and maybe, however far-fetched it seems, maybe something I have to say will help someone else. And maybe what I write will help those who already have faith understand what it can be like for someone who doesn't (though I don't claim to be an "everyman" of the faithless--God help them if they're all like me!).

First, about honesty. I think honesty is about the most important thing you can have when dealing with questions of faith. Any other question as well, really, but honesty is particularly important when it comes to things which have a major impact on how you should live your life. And honesty when you're unsure whether what you're saying is "right" or not, and what people are going to think of it, and maybe even what you'll think of it yourself in a few months time... well, that takes courage. So I wish I could comment and give her a word of support for being that honest.

And second, about the last line. Maybe my faith in my conscience is substantially different from the kind the religious have, but it's there. And that made me feel lucky. Because my faith in my conscience has never yet failed me.

THE universal truth

PREAMBLE: This post started out as an attempt to write a comment on a post by Jen F on conversiondiary about Truth and Religion. But it got too long and I realized it would fit better here. The comments I read there are an excellent supplement to this post - if you've got some time, read through them, and see if what I'm saying would help these people to find some common ground.

Also, as I've said before, I think there are some universal truths that can unite everyone behind a common purpose. I've been going back and forth with Uncle E now for several weeks, trying to nail down some core belief that we share. I can't be sure that I've got it yet, but I think I might be on to something. So here you go.

I've always thought that beneath all of the religions, there is some "objective truth", that they're all looking for. And they all have bits and pieces of it, but the real objective truth is so profound that it's hard to hold in your head. It's what I'd call a God-scale concept. So it gets corrupted, dumbed down, or stories get built on top of it in an effort to explain something that is very much beyond our full understanding. And cynics use people's innate desire to find the truth to gain power and influence for themselves. And the question becomes "which religion should I adopt?" or "Which religion is the most true?", which boils down to "Which truth-fairytale with power-mongering built in should I believe?"

The problem is, people feel a real need to know "the truth", so they make all kinds of justifications and rationalizations why the false stories and power-mongering are in fact a good thing, and part of the "real truth".

So what do you do? My answer has been that the truths religions are trying to tell are true for all religions, we just don't understand exactly what they are yet. So I've tried to look for things in what everyone is saying, from all of the different religions, and the atheist community, that might represent a common ground, because I think that common ground is the truth.

I've come up with something simple, that I've really known all along, I just haven't articulated in exactly the way I did with Uncle E just recently, and will do here now. The simple truth is, we all have a conscience, and we all use it to determine "real" truth.

Don't scream moral relativist yet. Because there's a little bit of faith here. The faith is that my conscience comes from wherever it is that truth comes from, and will reliably guide me to do whatever it is I should be doing with my life. With any religion, you are pressured to take on faith any of the claims of that religion that you can't prove with evidence. I've found that that one assumption, that one single leap of faith about the truth of my conscience, gives me all of the benefits I can find in any of the religions, and it has none of the mind-bending baggage that comes with trying to believe that EVERYTHING a particular religion says is true. Not only do I not have to believe everything a particular religion says, I can look at a religion's claims and decide whether I think they are true or false, without worrying about whether I will have to re-write my entire world view.

Really, I think most people who are not born and raised in a particular religion, but actively make the decision to enter it, do so because their conscience tells them something about it represents the real truth. So what they're doing is trusting their consciences, but not fully realizing that's what's guiding them, and ending up letting something else (a particular doctrine) guide them over the long term, which leads to problems.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that's the one thing that unites religious people. Whatever conception of God you have, you keep it because your conscience tells you it's right enough (many find it's not perfect), not because of any other logical justification you may be able to give me or anyone else.

Think I'm wrong? Think about this for a second. If your conscience told you the church you were in was not where you should be, would you think your conscience was defective and continue to follow that religion, or would you leave? Sure, you would question, and possibly wonder if you were going nuts, but in the end, what would you do?

This is a tough question for a lot of people, because their idea of conscience is so tied up with a particular religion's ideas. And when I discussed this with Uncle E, who has been Catholic for 45 years, after a day, he came back and said that conscience trumps Jesus, and if his conscience told him he had to leave the church he would do so. But he said that even though this was the case, his belief in God was the most important thing, even more than his belief in the correctness of his conscience, because without God there would be nowhere for a "true" conscience to come from. So atheism is still out, conscience in his view doesn't unify theists and atheists.

The problem is that when people say "God", they almost always mean a particular kind of God. For example, the "There is only one, worship no Gods before me" kind you get with monotheism, or the one that made us in its image you get with Christianity. But if you think about it, do we know this for sure? Do we know there is only one God? I've wondered, what if the universe was made so that there is one objective truth, and a real way to tell good from bad, but it was made by a group of gods working together as a community? Many Gods, but one Plan for the universe. Does anyone have a reason besides "My religion says no" why this couldn't be true?

I asked Uncle E. this question this morning, because he put forward a belief in God as the source of our consciences as the foundational truth he and I did not share. But the thing is, if you want to call "the source of our consciences, and the source of a real objective truth we should seek for" God, then OK, I believe in God then, because I do think my conscience means something and will guide me well. But what does this God look like? Are we sure there is only one? Are we sure God is the first cause, instead of being made by the first cause and in turn making the universe? Are we sure about anything about God, other than the fact that since we have a conscience that is such a marvelous guide to what we should do in life, God must exist as the source of that?

I think we can verify the reality of our conscience, and through that make a valid argument for the existence of God, but that doesn't allow us to argue for a particular conception of God. And since our conscience is what we use to decide what conception of God to accept, God isn't more important in our daily lives, it's our conscience that matters. Put another way, A belief that our conscience will guide us well is more important than any particular conception of God.

If, instead of "My God is the source of my conscience, so an assault on my God is an assault on the truth of the idea that my conscience could guide me reliably", people said "My conscience determines which God I accept as real", I think that might solve a lot of problems. In a few words: My conscience is the foundation of my beliefs., instead of My God is the foundation of my beliefs

It's the reverse of how Uncle E. looked at things. I wonder, now that I've pointed this out, what he'll say?

UPDATE: His response is:
I think a lot of this, like Einstein's relativity, depends on the position of the observer in relation to the observed. From my viewpoint, it might be conscience and truth first, God second, but the truth is that God came way first, and I am just a late arrival. It can be helpful noting how it looks from my viewpoint, but that is very parochial, and the non egocentric viewpoint is the more truthful one overall. But I suspect that distinction of observer may be one cause of our disagreements.

If you look at your conscience as being the source of your beliefs, it does unify you with everyone else, including most atheists I've talked to. Because, if you're an atheist, how do you choose your moral structure? Should it be utilitarianism, empathy, survival of the fittest, some other concept, or some mix of these? Your answer will often depend on looking at the effects of the various alternatives and thinking about which one your conscience likes the best. So there's an important but rarely highlighted distinction between religious people plus conscience-following atheists, and those (predominantly atheist, but also possibly extremist holy-book-thumper religious) who think it's not important to follow their conscience because it's not as reliable as some other guide to action (logic/scripture).

So, to the religious people: what do you think? Could you regard yourself as being "on the same side" with someone who had a completely different conception of God, or didn't believe in God at all, but acknowledged that following your conscience is how you should live your life? Or is God truly more important to you than following your conscience?

UPDATE, in response to Uncle E's thoughts: And, if viewing your conscience as primary (the source of any coneption of God you will accept) allows you to work with everyone else for a better world, is the parochialism of this view justified by its effects? It's an "ends justify the means" agrument, I know, but I've often wondered if I should support a religion that I'm pretty sure is not 100% true, because of the beneficial effects. This is just that same question rephrased, except instead of a religion, I'm wondering if we should support a "parochial" but in a very practical sense true, view, for the sake of working together for a better world?