Wednesday, April 27, 2011


About 100 years ago, when The Times asked several writers to comment on what is wrong with the world, one of them offered a very simple answer,

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton converted to Catholicism later in life, he wrote poetry, plays and Christian apologetics as well as fantasy. He often employed paradoxes.

In its simplest form, his answer can be seen as a restating of the status of humans as “fallen”. God gave us a perfect world, but because we want to know more and we want to control that world, as represented by Adam eating from the tree of knowledge, we have demonstrated that we can’t just accept the paradise that we are given, so we have to suffer.

In a more reasoned view, one that includes a knowledge of billions of years of suffering by billions of species that never had a sense of where they came from or why they were there, it has a sense of a statement of responsibility. In either view, it is a universal statement. He is not indicating that he actually did something that trumps every other action by every other creature in the world causing the world to be wrong. By stating his willingness to be individually responsible, he invites you to write the same letter, sign your name and publish it.

What makes this difficult is that you have no guarantee that anyone else will follow suit. If you publish your letter and the only response you get is laughter, you will feel pretty silly and vulnerable. We know that there are many people looking to blame someone else for what is wrong with the world, so the person who says they are the problem is an easy target. If you publish your letter only because you want others to do the same, then you really aren’t being as sincere as your letter says it is. If you wait until many others have published their letter before you publish yours, then those who blame and criticize will say you are doing it only because everyone else is. You really can’t win.

Really, we live in a world of competition, survival of the fittest, right? There has always been war and nature is full of creatures eating other creatures to survive. It IS our nature. We all knew it and Darwin proved it. We don’t need people taking responsibility, we just need the right people dominating those who are wrong.

Unfortunately the American education system provides a truncated view of Darwin, and it only seems to be getting worse. Our understanding of Darwin was altered in his lifetime by his contemporary, Thomas Henry Huxley and since then by distortions like the idea of an Aryan race. Like any idea, either science or Holy Scripture, it has been misused.

Darwin spoke extensively of cooperation and love in the animal kingdom. Its importance to the survival of species is just as obvious. Humans cooperate in ways unprecedented in the rest of the animal kingdom, but the roots of it can be seen when a school of fish all turn at the same instant, a herd of antelope go to the water hole together or a bees make honey. You might say that democracy is in our DNA.

As yet, I have not seen bees building voting booths to select the queen. Their form of cooperation involves far less choices than we have and their limited communication prevents something like confusion over a book written 150 years ago ever being an issue. If democracy were as simple as checking a box every two years, we would be as blissfully happy as a bee knee deep in pistil. I’m all for writing your congressman and contributing to campaigns, but there is more to it than that. Any truly democratic action begins with a handful of people.

And that leads to the movie that was named after G.K.’s letter. Most of us only have the resources to write little letters, but this film maker is making the statement in a much bigger way. He follows up the “what is wrong with the world” question with “and what can we do about it?” When he discovers in the course of making the movie that over-consuming, hoarding of wealth, and accumulating more than you need is a big part of what is wrong, he sells his mansion and moves into a trailer park.

It makes for a good story, but still he is just one person. The impact of his choices remains to be seen. We can wait to see how that turns out, or we can vote with him and make some of our own choices to contribute to the movement.

Before you get the idea that I am presenting this as something else to believe in, some new dogma, I want to offer one bit of critique about the movie. There is a section about 1/3 of the way through the movie that I wish he had left out. It has to do with “Noetic Science.”

In February 1971, Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, took out a golf club, and hit the longest drive in history. During his return flight he was overwhelmed with a profound sense of connectedness with the world. He has spent much of his life trying to understand what that was and how to tap into it as a resource to make the world better. This type of study, combining the experiential, individual senses that can’t be validated and quantified, with the data that can be, is called by some Noetic science. Others call it pseudo-science.

It has the appearance of science, but does not have the same rigor and has not stood up to the same type of peer review that non-pseudo-science has. Both of those types of science share the same sense of wonder. Both begin with a suspicion, a feeling, something unexplained that asks to be explained. Both end up leading to more questions as more knowledge leads to more wonder. Both need to be treated carefully, so that their answers are not considered the only right answers. If we aren’t careful, we’re just back to criticizing and competing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

21st Century Conversation

I realize most of you neither have the time nor the inclination to sit through a 2 hour debate between a fundamentalist and a self-proclaimed modern philosopher. So, I offer one of my many services. Relative to many such debates, this one was quite civil. The bottom line did not change much, but Sam Harris offers some new language in his book, The Moral Landscape, and he uses it well here. If you are not familiar with William Lane Craig, he is a big name in apologetic circles and many people draw on him as a source. He is well reasoned in this debate, but you don’t have to look too hard to find him defending Old Testament prophets slaying their enemies, because it was the will of God. This debate is about the basis of morality, so luckily, we don’t get into that.

Craig’s basic reasoning is that humans have not agreed on one standard for morality, and we are not capable of it. We need a god to provide it for us and making claims to have found a basis are not logical. If you try this out for yourself, you might find the idea appealing. A simple sounding idea like, you shouldn’t kill, is fine until someone is coming at you with a knife. If no one is currently attacking you, and you have some extra resources lying around, you should give something to charity, until you start getting low on resources or the guy with the knife shows up again, then what do you do? And what about more abstract thinking, like someone defenseless is being attacked somewhere far away. Or in some hypothetical world you have the power to decide between taking one person’s life or five peoples lives. Its enough to get you to say that it is in God’s hands.

Sam Harris says it is not. He says we may not have answers to everything, but we can figure it out. We should start with the idea of “human flourishing”. Defining that exactly is not important to his theory of morality. He talks about a scale. We are no longer in constant fear of being eaten every day and although there are still places where torture is commonplace and justice is arbitrary, we have created many safe societies, places where humanity has flourished. We don’t need a complex system, or ancient scripture to determine that being beaten with a rod is unpleasant. And yet many of those ancient scriptures recommend it if someone disobeys their parents, wears the wrong clothes, or does not believe some unsubstantiated bit of history. We can look at this scale from the worst possible suffering to the best we know and decide the direction to move along it.

Craig avoids the scriptural arguments because it is not the topic of the debate. That’s a fair statement, although it made me wonder how he would stand up to Harris if it were the topic. He focuses on what he calls the problem of “is” and “ought”. You can’t derive a prescription from a description. Because it feels right to give to charity doesn’t mean we should. We do that because we have been taught to, because an authority said we ought to. If Nazi Germany had won World War II, our sense of morality would be much lower and Harris would be arguing for that lower standard.

This is where Sam Harris says, “This is where you hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Craig sees the world as requiring some sort of foundation, an ultimate authority worthy of our love. He claims science does the same thing with its basis in identifiable nature and its axioms. Harris tries to explain the difference but does not seem to get through to Craig. Fortunately most of the Notre Dame students in the audience seem to get it, so there is hope.

Science does rest on some ideas that technically can’t be proven, like that pain is painful, or when you’re dead you’re dead. There are a few people who claim that they enjoy pain, but we know there is something wrong with them, and we don’t include them in our moral framework. In the United States, we have accomplished an awful lot simply by eliminating the possibility that someone could be given the death penalty by throwing stones at them because they cheated on their husband based on a very old book. However, people in the highest positions in government still say we need to respect the right of other cultures to make such choices in a such a manner.

Harris addresses this is greater detail in a “Response to Critics” page at his website. Briefly, he says, science is based on values that must be presupposed, like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence, etc. There is no reason to apologize for that, anymore than a doctor should apologize to a chronic smoker who does not share his presuppositions about health. In more subtle terms, the long distance runner trains very differently than the sprinter, but we don’t argue about what they ought to do, we just agree that both are healthy. We can abandon the idea of science all together, or we can mire ourselves in the gray areas, or we can agree to move toward something that we realize may never be attained but is better than where we are now. Those who want to argue that we can’t know what “better” is better, don’t need to come along.

Where Sam Harris really shines is when he talks about the value of religion. His approach takes the wind out of the sails of those who claim to hold the moral high ground. He has spent time in Buddhist retreats, meditating for most of his waking hours. He knows his scripture and has no problem cherry picking the good parts. He calls it, “having a 21st century conversation”, drawing on all of the accumulated human knowledge that we have to solve these most perplexing problems. Most modern Christians do this intuitively, by dismissing Old Testament stories of God’s wrath by saying that Christ reconciled man to God. Some even know the New Testament passages that override the laws of Moses, but most are just using their common sense, their 21st century brains.

There are many shorter interviews and articles by and about Sam Harris. If you google a few terms from this quote of his, you should find some of them:

“All we have is human conversation to do this with. Either you can be held hostage by the human conversation that occurred 2,000 years ago and has been enshrined in these books, or you can be open to the human conversation of the 21st century. And if there's something good in those books, then it is admissible in the 21st century conversation on morality.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

I know you think they're special

Here is an R rated extremely offensive video, that I particularly love. Bill Hicks was starting to build a successful career just before he got a rare form of cancer and died. It is unfortunate because his commentary on the state of the world would be useful for recent events. He would sometimes preface the bit linked to here by saying, “Here’s what has kept me anonymous in this country.” So, if you don’t like it, I understand.

It really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with religion, except that, like everybody’s unique idea about theology, children are special, but only to a few people. We all know, we all hope, that your children are special to you, but that is how it is supposed to be and where it is supposed to end. We know that “children are our future”. Working toward a brighter future requires seeing all people as special and precious, not just one child.

In a similar way, all of the variations on spirituality are not special. And in the same way, people take great offense when you point that out. I’m not talking about religious wars. War is usually related to resources and religion only plays the roles of enabler. I’m talking about individual beliefs. It doesn’t matter if it is a set of beliefs that someone has determined as uniquely their own, perhaps drawing on a multiplicity of sources, or beliefs that are strongly rooted in a single tradition. If you watch two other people with different beliefs arguing it seems so clear that their differences are semantic or based on nothing but fantasy, but can you take that same objective look at your own?

If you can suspend your own attachment to your beliefs, even temporarily, it is easier to see just how much trouble is caused from having that attachment. I’m not suggesting that permanently suspending all beliefs is an answer to the world’s problems. Without beliefs, it is tough to get through the day. There are a lot of unanswered questions. If we wait for all the answers before moving ahead, we’ll find ourselves at the end of our lives having accomplished nothing. As Bill Hicks said, “let’s take a look at this whole food/air deal first.” Then later we can get back to what color your chakras are or just what the Trinity is or how quarks affect our emotions.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Who Cares

Sometimes I wonder if it is worth the trouble to examine this issue of Science and Religion. It can take you out to the fringes of society. But as we saw recently, one little family with a church in Florida can cause problems on the other side of the world when they start messing with religious material. I started asking questions about just "religious fundamentalism" is and how people reacted to the early scientific discoveries several years ago.

Those questions led to more than simple answers about who said what. Understanding those answers also sheds light on current moors, our sense of place in the world, and ongoing political struggles. To lay it out takes more than a blog entry, so I have started outlining it here: Who Cares: The Battle Between Science and Religion.

Feel free to leave any comments about it here.