I don’t believe in any God, Christian or otherwise. However, I acknowledge that a bunch of people created a body of Judaic Scripture with a lot of stories and principles for living. I also acknowledge that a Jew named Jesus from Nazareth gave up carpentry, identified some flaws in that Old Testament, and won over enough followers to create a New Testament. Those two Testaments have shaped and continue to shape the civilization in which I live and think.
I thus propose a possibly provocative description: I am an atheist Christian. Or should I say Christian atheist?
#1: God Doesn’t Exist; We Do
#2: What Does an Atheist Do (or Not Do) All Day?
#3: Christian Atheist, Hamlet Fan
When we pair an adjective and a noun, the noun seems to take priority. Vanilla ice cream—vanilla’s the flavor, but I’m eating ice cream. If I wear a red dress, my choice of red will create less of a stir than my choice of a dress. So which term takes priority in describing my worldview?
I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.
But I’m Christian, by upbringing, social osmosis, and choice, in a lot of my principles.
I agree with the Mosaic tablets that murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and covetousness are bad. I think taking a sabbath is healthy (that’s why you’re seeing this blog post while I’m gone walkabout). The Commandments about graven images and taking God’s name in vain are useless to me, but I can say that, technically, I have no other gods before the Christian God (and wouldn’t! If I ever convert, it’s Jesus or nobody, not Allah, Buddha, or Flying Spaghetti Monster.). So I’m better than 60% on the Commandments (a better score than the current President who won the Christian vote).
I find the Christian principle of human fallibility extremely useful and have integrated it into my worldview. Mankind stained itself and the Earth with original sin. Jesus came because we are too weak and error-bound to save ourselves. I don’t buy into the metaphysical parts of Genesis and the Gospels, but I do agree that we are fallible creatures doomed to make mistakes. We all err; we all fail; we all die. We must play to win, knowing that most of us will lose and that even the few who win today will inevitably lose someday. We should seek perfection, but we will never achieve perfection.
Human fallibility sounds like a paradox (or maybe a death sentence), yet it helps me understand my limitations and the limitations of my fellow beings. It helps me… accept failure (I was going to say forgive, but I still struggle with that concept) as a natural, predictable part of our lives, but it also helps me get up and try again, and again.
My acceptance of human fallibility reinforces the sense of of grace we must accord ourselves and our fellow human beings. When Polonius says he will treat the actors visiting Elsinore “according to their desert,” Hamlet famously responds,
God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in [William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2].
Hamlet and Jesus say we’re all scum. We lowly crawlers deserve nothing. Yet as Hamlet found the visiting actors worth shelter, food, and honor, the Gospels say a supernatural being found us fallible humans worth the sacrifice of his son. Again, even absent the metaphysics, those stories carry a useful lesson about grace. We all screw up. If we are to put up with ourselves and with each other, we have to accept our fallibility and not base our respect for each other solely on our flawed works. We must accept that all people have some inherent dignity that transcends their inevitable failures.
I also love a good hotdish, especially tater-nugget. That makes me at least an adjutant Lutheran, right?
When I was at SDSU, I imagined having two philosophical “reactors” in my head. One was an atheist reactor, chugging along nicely, powering my worldview and moral decision-making. The other was an auxiliary Christian reactor, a back-up generator, ready for me to swap out the atheist reactor if it broke down and provide all the power I needed to get me through the day (or the rest of my life). All the Christian reactor needed was that one missing component, the belief in God that I just couldn’t find.
25 years later, it occurs to me that my “Christian reactor” may not be a separate auxiliary unit. It may have been the active unit powering my worldview all along. It’s a cheap, off-brand model, with some strange parts from foreign manufacturers, and it’s still lacking that crucial God component. But like a Haier fridge next to a Kenmore, or a Tucker ’48 next to a Chevy, my worldview generator runs on many of the same principles as my neighbors’.
So which is it? Am I an atheist Christian, a follower of Christian principles who omits the supernatural parts? Am I a Christian atheist, whose fundamental belief in the natural world excludes God and spirits but who can accommodate certain principles from a certain book with certain secular application? Or is Christianity so wrapped up with the supernatural that, without the God component, I can’t honestly use the term Christian? Am I a Shakespearean Christian, an atheist Hamlet, or just a ham?
The term matters less than the practical outcome. I reject the belief in God of a majority of my neighbors (including a majority of the people who live in my house). Yet I share with them a lot of the Christian principles that help us get along and keep trying.
I’m loving the topic you settled on to keep us reading in your absence. I consider myself a doubter. I definitely don’t follow any religious belief system, but I am also not atheist or agnostic either. I’m pedantic, so words matter to me. Definitions matter. An atheist, as I understand the definition, is a person who believes there is no god. That to me is as strong a belief as the belief that there is a god. It may even be stronger. An agnostic is generally defined as a person who believes that knowing whether a god exists or doesn’t exist is impossible – that the human mind is not capable of understanding the answer, regardless what that answer is. I don’t particularly agree with either of those.
I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but I can’t find the certainty of any of these labels in my own self. I don’t think a god exists, but I don’t “believe” no god exists. Maybe it’s the word “believe” that I struggle with, rather than the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being. I am actually very comfortable in my admitted ignorance, however, because admitted ignorance is the only zone in this conversation that actually makes sense to me. The known universe is too large and too complex for me to be comfortable calling myself a “believer” of anything bigger than my senses allow me to compute.
I have always felt that, if an intelligent creator created me, it made me like this – full of doubt, and honestly full of contempt for people who pretend to be sure of anything this uncertain. How would any creator expect me to think, and act, and live differently than how it created me? I don’t want all this doubt – it’s heavy – I would very much like to have an answer. Maybe it’s selfish and egotistical, but I think if a god created people, he would expect them, and probably even want them, to have doubt. What if you were a god? What would it say about your creation if your people were so naive and fearful they would blindly follow any leader who claimed to offer a chance at eternity? People will follow any fool if that fool has a little moxie, a big mouth, and a promise.
What is most concerning to me is this question: what if a god exists, but it is not the god we want? If a creator builds my body and mind and fills it with questions and wonder rather than a desire to follow and fit in, is it my fault I am like this? I don’t see how it could be. What if I choose to live a good life? What if I treat people and animals and our earth with respect? What if I am kind to my wife and children? What if I do all these things while doubting the origins of the bible, or the koran, or the bhagavad gita, or anything else that purportedly comes to us from a god? Well, according to most religions, I am not welcome in their earthly reality or their other-worldy eternity because of my unwillingness to “believe,” regardless of the nature of my actions. Does a god that creates this scenario for billions of its subjects sound like a god worth worshiping?
That’s where a lot of people like me get stuck. What if the god had the power to prevent suffering, and chose to allow it? What if the god knew which men and women would better our world and which ones would be murderous tyrants, and allowed those tyrants to reign? What if the god condemned some beautiful and innocent children to a life of unimaginable pain, and allowed terrible and corrupt minds to enjoy all the pleasures of our world? What if a god exists, but we, as his children, want to be emancipated?
OK, this is a long enough rant. Here is my viewpoint, boiled down to the most simple formula: Nobody has any of this figured out – not religious zealots, not atheists, not me, and not you. Not by a long shot. If somebody says they do, they’re selling something. Each of us is a product of nearly infinite circumstances, which makes life incredibly fascinating for both wonderful and terrifying reasons.
I personally think it is a shame that so many humans want their whole lives, their whole being, to be labeled and defined by this topic, but I admit I am one of the people who doesn’t know squat, so do your own homework.
Cory Heidelberger , I enjoy reading your blogs of investigative journalism on various matters affecting S.D. and the U.S. However, I’m not as interested in your extensive detailed views on your atheism. At the same time, It is your blog. I’d encourage you continue what you do best. At the same time my opinions are only that, my opinions. Have a great day
Well said, Ryan! Thank you.
Cory has the courage and honesty rarely found in politics. Most will lie about religion to gain popularity.
~ There are currently no self-described atheists serving in Congress, although there is one House member, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who describes herself as religiously unaffiliated.
I think that the “Jefferson Bible” may be something worth looking into for you.
I also spent a few years deciding if God/religion was for me. I ultimately decided that the message of the bible was pretty solid, and that someday when I had kids they would need a good moral anchor to pull off of. I also realised that any resentment or confusion I had about Christianity in general was caused by neo-Christian conservatives and some organized religions, and there was no reason to let them dictate the direction of my faith with their self-serving BS. As far as the miracles go, you can take them or leave them. Makes no real difference. It’s probably best to keep some salt nearby though. We know for a fact that the world is more than 5k years old, so the bible gets off to a rocky start. But if you don’t get too hung up on things one way or the other, and just appreciate the bible for the handbook to life that it is, you’ll be fine.
My wife is devoutly religious, and we go around about atheism from time to time. I don’t see Atheists as being the devil. People need to understand that atheism doesn’t equal Satan worship. It just means choosing to not take part. And Christians need to understand how frustrating it is for Atheists to not have freedom of religion apply to them. Atheists have no religious freedom. God is all to often forced upon them, and the second they try to stand up for their rights, they get a label slapped on them.
All I can say to Atheists is too keep your head high. You have nothing to be ashamed off.
I don’t want my children to grow up to be immoral either, but I am less convinced than Chip that it is a good idea to “just appreciate the bible for the handbook to life that it is…”
The bible says people who do work on the sabbath should be put to death. The bible says that if a priest has a promiscuous daughter, she should be burned. The bible says if any woman has premarital sex, the men in her community should stone her to death. The bible says homosexuality should be punished by – you guessed it – death.
In the bible, St. Paul says women shouldn’t be able to teach or have any authority over a man – she should be silent. Moses encouraged people to kill witches. The bible tells wives they should be submissive to their husbands, as they should be to the lord, and that slaves should be submissive to their masters.
It’s scary how so many people who purport to follow this book are comfortable overlooking all of this malarkey. Or maybe they actually agree with it? That would be even scarier.
This sounds like a pretty gnarly handbook to life if you ask me. You might want to pray you only have heterosexual sons. I have a daughter, though. She is by far the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I hope with all my heart she is never treated the way the bible says women should be treated.
I’m following your post. Looking good. Making sense. Good logic.
You know what you know by experience, knowledge, study. Humbly admitting you are having trouble going to belief because you are limited by your experience, knowledge, study which have given you nothing sufficient to discern the existence of a supreme being/creator.
You ask good questions about the nature of God, evil, suffering, etc. which are again constrained by your limited experiences and knowledge.
Alls good until you get to your viewpoint/conclusion which is essentially:
1) “Nobody has any of this figured out. . . .” which equals “If I can’t/don’t have the experience and knowledge to discern there is a supreme beaing/creator, then anyone who claims to have what I don’t must be a liar or lunatic.
2) “Its a shame. . . .” which again is another form of “If I don’t have it figured out, those who claim to are wasting their lives by being so dedicated to their God.”
Ryan, in some ways the most profound thing you may have said is “Maybe it’s the word “believe” that I struggle with. . . .” I once was told or read that belief is not what I think to be true, not what I know to be true but WHAT I UNDERSTAND TO BE TRUE AND I WILL STAND FOR EVEN UNTO DEATH.
Belief in anything is hard when it is overlaid with the admission to believe in it requires one to be willing to die for it. So, it is easier to not admit what we believe in. No head on the block then. HOPEFULLY being a good husband, father and doing the right thing will “save me” if there is something to save when dead. HOPEFULLY, if there is a God that God will appreciate the honesty in myself struggle with unbelief, the evil/pain/suffering in the world, and maybe God will even take some responsibility since God is the Creator and I’m just the created.
And, if there is no God, the end is the same, you are a pile of dust. Six of one, half dozen the other. But, if there is a God, we both know you aren’t God and you will find out if your “hope” was warranted and sufficient.
BTW: The theological virtue of Hope is defined as living with the desire of being united with God and expecting it. Capital “H” Hope is not the same as small “h” hope.
The thing that bothers me most about atheism is that atheists have little art of value and almost no music. Yeah, atheists make good scientists and passable philosophers, but I’m not sure they make great fine artists. I believe, Cory, you are an artist. What say you?
Maybe with the possible exception of John Lennon, who was probably more a doubter or pan-religionist than an atheist, what atheist has created great music? I realize that much of the great classical music was created by composers under commission, either to a prince or to a religious sect. So, many were just in it for the money. But what about all that unbelievably moving black gospel music. If you’ve ever been to a real black church, you would swear Jesus was right there in the music.
I tried to write a few tunes in my life. Meh. You either need God or a seventeen-year-old or you need to be cynical and sarcastic, like Randy Newman, to inspire you. I’m too old for seventeen-year olds. And I’m too old for God. But, hey, I can be inspired by sarcasm.
Troy, you raise solid concerns regarding my comments, but you quoted me mid-sentence. I said those are components of my viewpoint, not facts.
If a god appeared before me, I would likely crumble at its feet under the weight of the obvious realization that I am not worthy of its grace. What I won’t do, though, is turn my life, or my soul if that exists, into a poker chip on a roulette table. I don’t have it in me to follow a religion “just in case,” as you seem to suggest. Too many people have lived, and died, and killed others for their beliefs, so despite the fact that I disagree with most people when the topic is god, I am not the type to trivialize the issue with a pros-and-cons comparison of belief or nonbelief.
In fact, another component of my viewpoint is that religion is the most dangerous thing on this earth, because so many people are comfortable making that wager and perpetuating the division among people that it creates.
Ryan, I too enjoyed your posts. I think you have erred, however, in concluding that “An atheist, as I understand the definition, is a person who believes there is no god.” While this may be true for some individuials who consider themselves “atheist,” it appears inconsistent with the viewpoint of the American Atheists group:
Your description of your own personal views would seem consistent with the views of this group.
Like I said. I take it with a bit of salt. I don’t see any sense in hanging on every word to make a case for or against the bible. Our church allows homosexual pastors and I’d be very surprised if they wouldn’t be willing offer marriage services to one of our own that happened to be homosexual. I wouldn’t go there if I didn’t genuinely believe that. Our last pastor was a woman. So obviously nobody there believes a woman should be silent or is unable to teach. I don’t remember anything from our marriage classes about my wife having to be submissive. We did talk though about sex before marriage. My wife’s mother got kicked out of her church when she got pregant with my wife. We all agreed that was wrong. Would not be there if that weren’t the case. I can also tell you that my wife is lucky she isn’t Catholic, because I never would have signed a piece of paper agreeing to raise our kids as Catholic. I probably would have been thrown out the door when I asked the priest why I wasn’t good enough to take communion there.
I don’t have all the answers on this. Are there some discrepancies between what my church preaches and the generally accepted translations/interpretations in the bible? Sure there is. Do I care? No. I’m not the least bit ashamed of it. Even Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted his own bible together to better reflect his own beliefs. Does that make you less Christian? Are we supposed to believe that God hates homosexuals, or that God loves everyone? Where did that discreptancy come from? Isn’t that what doing your own homework is all about?
This brings to mind John Paul Sartre’s play “The Flies.” When the king of Gods, Zeus, threatens Orestes with the crumbling of the earth beneath his feet unless Orestes submits to Zeus, Orestes replies:
Sartre’s treatment of Orestes confrontation with Zeus reveals a powerful message. Even if there is a God as described in the Bible, it does not follow that we must worship or even respect that God, especially if it demands the awful behavior described in Ryan’s post, referencing many of the laws of the Old Testament. Freedom, if exercised, overcomes fear of being punished by God for doing what we believe to be right, rather than blindly following God’s orders in the hope of escaping eternal punishment or obtaining eternal reward.
Bearcreekbat, that definition does seem closer to my thoughts than some of the oversimplified versions I’ve seen before. Maybe I just hate labeling something so overwhelming in its complexity and importance and then lumping myself in a group that probably has just as many crazies as theists.
Chip, I have no answers for anything. I’m sure there are many good people who just go along with the good parts of the bible and ignore the ugly stuff, but that’s sort of the issue this whole conversation is about. If people are going to do that, what’s the point of the book? Why pray? Why not just do good? Why perpetuate an organization of killers and rapists and slaveholders just because they also suggest some benevolent action, too?
I remember being taught that an atheist says “we DO not know”. An agnostic says “we CAN not know”. In other words, an atheist believes if we can not arrive at belief in gods through logic, when there is no evidence, then we do not believe. An agnostic believes it is not within our power as human beings to know or understand the existence of gods, then we CAN not know.
The use of partial sentence wasn’t meant as a truncation or taking out of context. That is why I put the “. . . .” My intention and reference was to your entire thought.
The rest of your comments makes it clear you have no desire to believe. Our desires are choices. We all get to make them.
You also have little grasp of the interiority of those who do. But, that is ok too. Believers also have a hard time grasping the interiority of those who don’t believe. Even a convert (either way) often talks how hard it is to remember their own prior interiority. Believers may appeal to the wager when conversing with the non-believer but belief is not a chip for who do you know who would die for a chip?
You are exactly correct- Atheism is the absence of belief. However, sometimes in the vernacular it referred to as non-belief as it gives vividness to the discussion which is accurate. Comparable analogies.
We use the word “cold” to describe the a lack of heat. But, technically, there are degrees of heat in anything until -250 Fahrenheit (or is it celsius as I forget?) when there is no heat. You can’t get colder than “absolute zero” which is shorthand for “no heat.” Cold isn’t the opposite of heat but a term describing the lack of heat (and degree).
Same with darkness. There is very bright light, kinda bright light all the way down to just a wee bit of light. After that, there is no light. Darkness is not the opposite of light but but is like “absolute zero” meaning “absolutely no light”.
As you reference, so it is with atheism.
Someone’s prayers went unanswered. Charlie Gard’s parents agree with British docs and American doc that it is too late for Charlie to fly to America for treatment. Let nature take its course.
OMG She’s still talking! Proves there is no God.
Michele Bachmann: ‘The Lord Is Working Mightily In Our Government’ Thanks To Trump | Right Wing Watch
Ryan, As you said, words are important. The same word can have a different meaning depending on where you are in the US. Or a particular thing can have a different name depending on where you are. Also consider words like ‘office’ vs ‘officer’. Both have the same basic root word but have very different meanings.
How about ‘duck’ vs ‘duck’?
Now imagine those differences across different regions and translations of languages across the world today. Interpretations become exponentially more strained. Now throw in several translations across several thousand years of different civilizations. Then add the possible filter of whatever spin the translator wants to put on it at the time.
Any way you slice it, your Christianity is your own. If that’s what you’re into. If not, that’s fine too. If I could find another more secular orginization to be a part of i would definately consider it. But must don’t do weddings or funerals, and those things come in handy from time to time.
“Why not just be good?”
Who needs farmers when you’ve got the supermarket?
I think Cory is a poly-atheist – where one does not only contest the existence of one God, but also the existence of many Gods – and rejecting the idea that any one of man’s numerous religious God constructs could be accurate.
Arguably the foundational Christian principle is Christ’s assertion that He and God the Father are one, so I’m not sure someone who denies God’s existence can accurately identify himself as a follower of Christ’s principles.
If you don’t have any of this figured out, Ryan, I’m wondering how you could possibly know that no one else does.
The Bible indicates that the world is more than 5,000 years old:
I’m not comfortable overlooking it, and I definitely don’t agree with it. What you’ve written is an extremely deceitful misrepresentation of the Bible’s teachings.
I’m pretty sure it’s –273°C or –460°F.
I said it is my viewpoint that nobody has any of this figured out. I don’t state it as a fact, because I obviously can’t “know” more than what I personally experience. My opinion is based on my life experience, and I stand by it. I have talked with atheists, devout religious people, pastors, and many other people who don’t label themselves, and none have provided anything to me other than further doubt and questions.
As for being “extremely deceitful” in misrepresenting the bible, I would argue I am being more literal with its message than you or your church. Just because somebody doesn’t like that it says those things doesn’t mean it doesn’t say them. If this book should be held in such high regard, as the physical representation of the word of your god, how can somebody pick and choose the parts that they think are right and still claim to be a follower of that god? Do the followers know more than the leader? Does the word of god expire? Is the god who wrote the book so complacent to allow his word to be bastardized with the mis-translations across the globe and across time as you mention?
Again, I admit I am full of doubt and unable to articulate all the thoughts in my head regarding this subject, but if I believed in a god and thought that my god wrote a book, I would either be all-in or all-out. If my god’s book read like the bible, I’d be out.
@Ryan … I was taught at UCC that the Old Testament is a history lesson of what needed to be changed by Jesus. The New Testament is a testimony of Jesus’ work on earth and his demise and his resurrection.
~Don’t think the Old Testament is a teaching guide. It’s a list of heinous, gruesome Jewish priests, Pharisees, rulers and judges ungodly crimes against their people.
~Our Bible is basically a choice between “An eye for an eye” vs “Turn the other cheek.”
~@Kurt … Don’t proselytize me. I find no wisdom in your rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of how people should live happy and fulfilling lives. Look within, young man. Should you refrain from continually needing the last word, women might be more attracted to you.
Mike, don’t worry—this detour into personal philosophy is an exception, not a new rule. I much prefer looking outward, not inward. Thanks for reading!
Kurt says, “Arguably, the foundational Christian principle is Christ’s assertion that He and God the Father are one….” I dig that point. That fundamental assertion distinguishes Christianity from mere good advice offered by your friendly neighborhood carpenter.
So suppose Christianity consists of that unique foundational principle and lots of other practical principles that flow therefrom. In terms of terms, who’s more Christian: the person who believes the foundational principle but rejects the others, or the person who rejects the foundational principle but finds other routes to lots of the practical principles? Or is the term “Christian” like “unique”, an absolute, all or nothing, with no degrees?
The juxtaposition of Ryan’s and Mike D’s comments at the top encourages me. This post launches Ryan into a lengthy statement of doubt and belief. His thoughts invite further contemplation. Mike shrugs and says (paraphrasing!), “Enough about you, Cory—get back to the real news!”
Both are valid responses. A lot of people take to social media to explore their own thoughts (see, for example, According to Allie in the Greater SD Blogosphere sidebar feed) or to post pictures of what they are eating or cooking or to talk about sports. Sports!—that’s a section of the paper I almost never open.
I want everyone to like what I write. But I (and all writers!) have to remember that nobody is going to like everything I write. Some people may not like anything I write. And if folks aren’t interested in South Dakota, odds are they aren’t going to be interested in this blog, since South Dakota is the focus of 95% of what I write. (This three-part series is an obvious exception… more on that in a moment.)
But if I’m writing well about South Dakota, if I’m reading and studying enough, I’ll find enough diverse topics even within my somewhat narrow chosen topic area to allow everyone to find something worth reading here. Those somethings won’t overlap for everyone, and that’s o.k. We all like different parts of the paper.
As I said to Mike, this series is an exception, not a change to a new rule. I’m getting back to work. I agree with Mike that my exploration and explanation of my irreligious beliefs is not as important for public consumption as a discussion of public affairs.
But with an eye toward public discourse, now I have this brief statement of atheist principles on the record. If I post on other religious issues that draw public attention (like praying for rain or claiming religious freedom as a defense against eminent domain for a natural-gas pipeline, or if I run for office and my opponent’s party decides to attack me as an atheist who hates Christians, I can link to this series and say, “If you really want to know what I believe, click, and there it is.”
Porter, would there ever be a way to verify that any of those Congresspeople are lying about their religion?
Look at what Chip says about the Jefferson Bible and the “handbook to life” approach to Scripture in the context of Kurt’s comment about the foundational metaphysical principle. That’s another way to test the question I put to Kurt and to everyone: can one ignore the big supernatural questions, be skeptical of miracles, read the Bible as a “handbook to life”, and thus live a life that we may honestly refer to as “mostly Christian”?
Donald, I’m glad you get the impression that I’m an artist. I get that impression, too, although so far, I’m a minor artist at best, perhaps only underscoring your observation that great artistry seems to require some divine spark.
Schubert’s Mass in G, Biebl’s Ave Maria, U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For—all God music, songs I love to sing. A sense of connection to the cosmic seems to inspire good art. John Lennon shows it’s not a necessary condition, but it appears to help. I have trouble imagining writing an atheist mass, a great work of musical architecture meant to reach to the heavens to honor… the nothingness that stares coldly down upon us.
Plus, atheists don’t have a long tradition of public worship necessitating the need for public worship songs, or popes, kings, and other potentates commissioning them to compose great music and paintings and sculptures. Stage a Renaissance, spread wealth around a bourgeois merchant class who want to honor their own earthly achievements rather than God, and maybe you get more secular art by secular artists.
Then again, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright….
Bearcreekbat quotes American Atheists: “Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.”
Troy seems to accept the distinction between disbelief and absence of belief, but I wonder: is that really a hair worth splitting? Is any hair being split? Is there any difference between saying, “I lack a belief in gods,” “I hold a disbelief in gods,” and “I don’t believe in gods”?
David Newquist, Bachmann’s comment may not disprove the existence of God, but, if accepted widely, it would disprove the existence of real Christians.
If Donald Trump is a sign of God at work, I want a new God.
Faith is easier than a sad dissertation on why you have no Faith. You are in my prayers Cory.
Sad? I feel like you don’t mean that word in any friendly, sympathetic, or prayerful way, OldSarg. And you know, as I review my words, I don’t think I spent much if any time talking about why I believe what I believe; I just described what I believe and the actions to which those beliefs lead me. I don’t try to proselytize or convert; is that the intent of your prayer? Are you even reading what I’m saying, or did you just see “atheist” in the headline and decide to wave your theist flag? If the latter, please spare me your aggressive piety and direct your prayers at someone who actually needs your help.
And… sad? I describe a worldview guided by the Lutheran concepts of human fallibility, grace, and tater-nugget hotdish. What’s sad about that? What more Christianness do you require to stanch your tears, OldSarg?
So. . .I’m supposed to convince myself to believe something because it would be “easier”? No, one doesn’t force oneself to believe just because it would be easier (or less painful).
But Cory, does accepting some principles which you call Christian (I’m not sure they’re Christian) make you Christian? I don’t think so. I don’t call myself Christian just because I think there’s some good writing (and some bad) in the testaments.
Robin, what if I changed terms slightly? What if I called myself a culturally and philosophically Lutheran atheist? Does it make a difference if I describe my worldview in terms of a theologian rather than the theos?
here’s an interesting twist concerning one of the world’s most noted critic of religion and evolutionary scholars
Cory, same question. I believe in several precepts from Buddhism and from the Tao. Does that make me a Buddhist atheist or an atheist Buddhist? Or Taoist? I’m not even sure about Christian, because though I’m about 50-50 on whether he existed as a man or not, If I don’t believe in the Christian god, then I don’t believe he had a son. I believe he (Jesus) may have been a man who walked the earth and spread goodness, much like Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer or Mohandes Ghandi. Anyway, thanks very much for your essays on atheism. Daresay it’s the best I’ve seen. And have a great time on walkabout.
Thanks for clarifying.
Do you mean to suggest that I’d mentioned mistranslations in my previous comment?
I’m not sure there’s anyone who believes the foundational principle but rejects the others. If there were, I’d say that person would still be more Christian than anyone who rejects the foundational principle.
I’m pretty sure it can be correctly used either as an all-or-nothing absolute or as a matter of degree.
Maybe predictably, I’d say no.
In the words of Steve Martin, “Atheists don’t have no songs” (3 minutes, 25 seconds):
It makes a slight difference, but Luther also asserted that Christ and God the Father are one, so his foundational philosophy was essentially the same as Christ’s.
The disclosure makes a person unelectable. Data from 2007 shows 53% of the population won’t vote for an atheist as President, higher even than homosexuals at 43%.
In 2014 there were 24 members of Congress who would say so privately, compared to 150 members of the UK Parliment who would do so publicly.
Some day there will be a tipping point in public opinion but it is likely a long way off. Didn’t expect to see a black President in my lifetime, but in that Gallup Poll only 4% said being black would mean a no vote. Huge difference.
To be realistic, atheism is a deal breaker to elected office.
Responding to Kurt – he asks:
“Do you mean to suggest that I’d mentioned mistranslations in my previous comment?”
I apparently made a mistake in responding to both you and Chip at the same time and incorrectly putting his words in your mouth. He said:
“Now imagine those differences across different regions and translations of languages across the world today. Interpretations become exponentially more strained. Now throw in several translations across several thousand years of different civilizations. Then add the possible filter of whatever spin the translator wants to put on it at the time.”
Sorry for the confusion. You didn’t respond to my other questions that were directed at you based on your actual comments, but that’s ok, you are in a difficult position that I think a lot of religious people get stuck in – defending the indefensible; answering the unanswerable. Since you put yourself out there, I thought I would ask, but I admit it is somewhat unfair. As a side note, I would never pose these questions to people who weren’t expecting them, because again, it’s like throwing stones at glass houses from a bunker. I do get that.
…and then, for a whole different take on things… http://www.fullmoon.nu/articles/art.php?id=tal
Why do athiests get married?
King of distraction brings up banning transgendered folks,yet another minority from the military
Happy, as you can elect trump, we can elect an atheist, a muslim, a black, a woman, a trans, a latino ect. and we have. we will continue.
Happy said : “To be realistic, atheism is a deal breaker to elected office.”
Thanks, Bill. Excellent piece.
Here’s to the second level. I see you getting there before me but it’ll be a revelation.
Maybe it’s what some call Heaven? LOL
Marriage is a civil contract with certain attendant responsibilities and privileges. It is not required that any church approve or officiate a marriage under U.S. law. You go to the state for the license, not to the church.
Thanks for clarifying.
I’m not in a position of defending the indefensible or answering the unanswerable. I didn’t respond to your other questions because they seemed rhetorical, but I’ll respond to them now.
In his previous comment, Ryan had asked:
I’m not sure.
No and no.
Atheists probably get married for the same reason Christians do. Their girlfriends threaten to break up with them if they don’t.
That was supposed to be funny.
Kurt’s closing reason is as good as any.
Chip, I’ll never presume to speak for all atheists and their motivations for marriage or other activities. I got married because I love the lady I’m with. That love is a choice and a promise, not to mention a useful civil contract, as Robin mentions. We got married in a church (Touchdown Jesus in Brookings!), because it was her church, because she wanted it there, because it took no skin off my nose, and because the bagpipes sounded awesome there.
Good morning Cory!
Just re-read your article today and it really resonates with me. What matters is how we act more than what label is applied to us (or we apply to ourselves).
My question here is whether you’ve found any moral guide in your journey better than Jesus? Is his teaching and example the best compass? Or do you rank someone else (Shakespeare?) above him?
Fancy meeting you here again, David! I am pleased to hear that this article resonates with you and that it holds up after 4.5 years. That’s another reason I blog instead of posting to Facebook—FB posts rarely last more than 24 hours, and they’re a lot harder to find.
A moral guide better than Jesus? Hmmm… the question makes me realize that I don’t go around looking for guidance very often. I glance at my moral compass and go charging down the trail.
I mention above that human fallibility, that fundamental Christian principle, helps me make sense of the world. Jesus probably put that thought in Shakespeare’s head, and Shakespeare then put it Hamlet’s voice, so even if I claim Shakespeare/Hamlet is my guide on that principle, I’d likely still have to trace the useful concept back to the Nazarene carpenter. But I wonder: were Jesus and his apostles the first fellas to write that notion down? Did the Greeks or the Phoenicians bring up a similar concept? Could we trace the whole notion back to Gilgamesh?
But let’s not get esoteric. Guidance implies direction to help one get somewhere, practical movement, practical action. In my daily activities, when I’m doing stuff, making moral choices, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify any single supreme guide for my actions. In figuring how to do right for my family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens, I think about and cite Jesus and his parables less frequently than I cite characters and metaphors from the books, news articles, essays, TV shows, and films that I take in and enjoy far more than Scripture. At work, I have cited Kirk, Spock, and Picard from Star Trek; Winston Churchill in the first season of The Crown, and Michael Scott from The Office to make sense of problems and determine practical and just solutions. I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and starred numerous passages as examples of how not to manage an organization or be a human. (Negative guides can be useful, too.) I read and listened to (and transcribed much of) President Biden’s speech on voting rights today and found it a good reminder that our practical rights in a democracy stem from the concept of equal human dignity. How much those “texts” I “read” may be rooted in Christian ethics and culture is an interesting academic question, but such analysis wouldn’t necessarily move me to more strongly follow or reject the notions I derive from those texts.
There’s also plenty of my mom and dad in my moral sense. Jesus had reasonable ideas, but when I was growing up, if I didn’t do what Mom and Dad said, there’d be real trouble real quick. Just the other day, I saw a sidewalk that had only been half-shoveled and I immediately thought of Dad chewing my butt for doing similarly half-assed work one winter day. Such sure and swift consequences stick with a guy, mostly for the best.
I haven’t spent much of the past couple decades trying to determine who is the best guide for my life. Sometimes Jesus is useful. Sometimes Spock. Sometimes Joe Biden. Sometimes Michael Scott. If I can’t name a “best” moral guide, am I in trouble? Do we need a coherent hierarchy of personal moral guides to ensure reliable moral responses?
Good evening Cory!
Thank you for the comprehensive reply! Again I find a lot in common with your approach of pulling practical wisdom out of my upbringing, past experiences, books, movies, TV shows, and (rarely) the speeches of politicians. Life is dynamic and complicated, so our moral compass is necessarily somewhat ad hoc. Scripture doesn’t say anything about vaccines or social media.
Thinking about your answer made me think about my question. What did I mean by a moral guide? And if there’s more than one, how do we rank them?
I think “moral guide” breaks down into two parts. First there is an aim, some sort of value, goal, or ideal. And second… how do we reach it? So, for example, when I’m thirsty, a moral guide says first that my body needs water and second, that I need to dig a well to get it. I’m making this distinction because I think your examples were mostly of the digging-a-well type. I mean we can get drinking water in many ways (public water fountains, friends’ homes, free at most restaurants), but which of those will work depends on the situation. Knowing that I can get free water at Wall Drug doesn’t do me a lot of good when I’m in Africa. And so, rightfully, we use a lot of ad hoc brainpower to observe, orient, decide, and act to achieve our goal. The successful lessons from those experiences petrify into proverbs, saws, superstitions, and old wives’ tales.
Less context-dependent is the first part… that my body needs water. And due to the imprecise nature of my question, when you said “In figuring how to do right for my family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens…” you sort of breezed past the part I was really interested in. What values/goals/ideals do you use to determine what’s “doing right” for other people? And where do they come from?
I’m content putting the metaphysical claims about Jesus on the sidelines. Much of those areas confound me, too. (I sometimes refer to myself as a Christian agnostic—a pun of sorts on the Christian gnostics who sparred with the church fathers—because when questions come up like “How does Jesus’s death take away the sins of the world?” I am currently “without knowledge”.)
And I agree with you that the idea of human fallibility isn’t original to Jesus. It seems to be implied in the Garden of Eden where humanity’s parents disobey, and then hide, from the embodiment of goodness… a story that comes from the oldest part of the Bible and probably from an untraceably old oral tradition before that. To further your point, many of Jesus’s other ideas and sayings can be found piecemeal in the Old Testament and the Talmud if you look hard enough. But without his ministry, those ideas weren’t reaching the ends of the earth. “Romeo and Juliet” existed before Shakespeare, but without that treatment, it would have remained in obscurity.
But more than that, I would suggest that Jesus’s synthesis created an ideal of human community that nowhere was thought about/aspired to/lived out before him. I mean the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ way of human community existed before Jesus. The Torah, the Talmud, the Prophets, and the Writings were read weekly in their synagogues. But Jesus’s ministry was not that. Jesus starts preaching about a new way of living based on ideas buried in their own texts, and they execute him in 3 years.
So here are some of the principles Jesus articulated for “doing right”:
– Be perfect.
– Sin no more.
– Do unto others…
– Love one another.
– Love your neighbor as yourself.
– Love your enemy.
– Turn the other cheek.
– Wash your traitor’s feet.
– Forgive others so that others may forgive you.
– Judge not… lest you be judged.
– Don’t go to God without first doing whatever you can do to reconcile your rifts (leave your gift at the altar; I desire mercy, not sacrifice).
– Always forgive, even after repeat offenses (70 x 7).
– Seek atonement with one another… become at-one with them. Don’t just “forgive” and never want to see them again, but fully restore the relationship as much as possible (like the father of the Prodigal Son).
– Your true enemy is within you, not someone else (plank in your own eye).
– Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
– Give all your wealth to the poor.
– Give your last farthing.
– Do your good works in secret.
– Take the seat at the foot of the table.
– Spend time with the drunkards, gluttons, tax collectors, and prostitutes without becoming one of them.
– Have courage, but utterly non-violent courage.
– Be willing to be put to death for these ideals (grain of wheat, take up your cross).
– Treat everyone as though they were Jesus in disguise (sheep & goats).
– Don’t worry about tomorrow.
These are some of the things I meant when I was wondering if you had found a greater moral guide/ideal. What do you imagine would happen if the whole country got on board with this list?
PS Your articles no longer have the checkbox to be notified for follow-up comments?
“Your true enemy is within you, not someone else.”—I read that line and thought immediately, “Someone needs to say that to Johnny, Daniel, Miguel, Samantha, Robbie, Tory, and every other character on Cobra Kai, a show now figuring prominently in my moral thinking.
The concept that “Your true enemy is within you, not someone else” also seems to be a fundamental part of Sartre’s explanation of personal responsibility, which for me was a key point of Sartre’s understanding of existentialism. This concept provides a powerful moral compass for decisionmaking. See e.g.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
And since I am responsible for deciding what this “burden” of personal responsibility means, I can find it devastating or uplifting, as the choice is mine alone.
To David’s concluding question, I think America would be better off if all of the individuals who justify their selfish and destructive politics by claiming to be Christians would actually follow the teachings of Jesus that David lays out.
I still revolt against some of those teachings myself. I continue to struggle with forgiveness: I hold my grudges and shun those who trespass against me. I judge (i.e., discern right from wrong, useful behavior from harmful behavior, reliable character from unreliable) regularly, critically, and vocally, accept that others will judge me, and ask only that they judge with the same honesty that I apply to my judgments.
But were I as well-read as BCB, I might be able to say the same of Sartre: some of his principles chafe, but for the most part, society would be better off if more people adopted more of his moral guidance. Perhaps any community would be better off if its members followed any reasonable philosopher’s guidance with more thoughtfulness and consistency instead of following their selfish impulses.
Jesus and I might have gotten along reasonably well. We might have gotten in arguments over some issues. We would have gotten into a fistfight over surrendering to the authorities and execution; if I’d had the chance, I’d have bundled him up in a mule cart, gotten out of Jerusalem, and headed for the hills, for Turkey or Persia or someplace where the Romans wouldn’t catch us and we could spread the Good Word without Jesus’s being killed.
So, yes: Jesus is a reasonable moral guide, worth listening to along with other good moral guides. Where are we headed with this line of thinking, David?
Thanks for joining the conversation! It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts.
My understanding of Sarte is thin, so I’ll need your help understanding his moral compass. I don’t follow either of the quotes you posted… “condemned to be free”? “must be without remorse or regrets”?
Condemned means sentenced to a punishment, which is why it’s natural to talk about someone being condemned to jail, i.e., not-free. In what sense does Sarte construe freedom as a punishment?
And for the second quote, I’m with Cory in recognizing that all humans are fallible. So, to me, we should all have some remorse or regrets in our life.
Reflecting on that statement made me think of the part in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle discussed 4 levels of virtue that define where a person is at with respect to a certain vice. For example:
(1) virtuous – does not crave cookies, and therefore does not eat cookies
(2) temperate – does not eat cookies, but does crave them
(3) intemperate – eats cookies, but wishes he was a better person who didn’t
(4) self-indulgent – eats cookies, and either does not know of the better life or does not care
Classes (1) and (4) are the only ones who would have no remorse or regrets… someone who either has attained complete virtue or completely abandoned it. I know of people who fit in class (4). Perhaps Sarte was a class (1) saint, somehow beyond all the actual saints who readily admit to their imperfection (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions), but what good is this compass for the rest of us? How does it help me as I bounce back and forth between seasons of loathsome dieting and seasons of guilt-ridden cookie-eating?
And finally, what did you mean by “I am responsible for deciding what this “burden” of personal responsibility means”? If I kick my neighbor’s dog, hard, and without being provoked… I can decide that that was a good act… and so it is?
Thanks again for the detailed reply. I’m not planning any gotcha argument. I’m genuinely curious if we can agree on what the best moral ideals are. Where are we going as individuals? Where are we going as a community? What principles, if we all got on board, would result in maximum human flourishing?
I am also disgusted by hypocrisy. (Now that I think of it, that’s another thing that could have been on the list. Not original to Jesus, but a major theme of his ministry.) But my angle here is that not just Christians, but all people would be better off following Jesus’s ideals… both individually and collectively.
And I do view it as something of a moral contest. Consider the following statements:
a) Don’t litter in my yard
b) Don’t litter anywhere
c) Pick up your family’s litter
d) Pick up all litter you encounter
I see those as increasing toward a moral ideal. In the same way, Confucius’s “Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,” while a magnificent principle on its own, comes up short of the Golden Rule. Similarly, Buddha nearly reaches Christ’s “Love your enemies” with “Let a man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good. Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. Never in the world does hatred cease by hatred. Hatred ceases by love.”
Of the moral systems I know about… things like stoicism, Confucism, fascism, Lenin-style communism, Mao-style communism, Gorbachev-style communism, SPQR, the code of Hammurabi, the Old Testament, nihilism, and moral relativism… as far as I can tell, Jesus’s ideals come out on top. And I’m saying this from a purely secular perspective. Here’s what I mean by secular:
1) “Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus. You may think that’s a lot of lollipop but just try it. Love is the most practical thing in the world. If you take an attitude of love toward everybody you meet, you’ll eventually get along.”
2) Similarly, forgiving and reconciling every human rift is immensely pragmatic. Holding grudges is way too expensive psychologically (drinking poison and wanting the other man to die), and grudges that expand into feuds are a social nightmare. Wars are worse.
3) Solving one’s issues by looking inward and sorting yourself out rather than expecting others to change to make you happy (plank in my own eye) is a cornerstone of cognitive behavior therapy. And society would certainly be more pleasant (and functional) if we all primarily focused on our own shortcomings and aimed toward cooperation rather than indulged in name-calling, back-biting, and transgression-listing our neighbors.
4) Giving our money to help the poor is the best societal return-on-investment that we can get. (Although, “help” in that sentence is a bit tricky… buying drugs for a drug addict isn’t the same as developing quality pre-school, daycare, after-school, and rehab projects.)
5) Treating everyone as though they were Jesus in disguise is what motivates people to help the plight of the untouchables or the poor eating from garbage dumps. This results in turning people who are a net drag on the society into people who contribute to its flourishing.
6) Developing non-violent courage is essential for staving off anxiety and being able to apply your talents where they can give society the greatest possible benefit.
Please clear up an ambiguity here. Do you mean (a) That you think those teachings are bad? or (b) That you recognize the teachings are ideal, they’re just really hard to live out?
If (b), I’m with you 100%. It’s could exhale much more charity and forgiveness than I do.
But, if it’s (a), then please draw out for me how a world that runs on grudges, shunning, and judgments is better (in a practical sense) than Jesus’s ideals.
PS If you ever write a historical fiction novel about the mule-cart smuggling to Turkey, please send me the first copy! It’s amusing to imagine you punching Jesus in the face only to have him continually turn the other cheek. However, my hunch is that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed” is also a practical saying. Martyrdom gets people’s attention. Cowardice suggests you aren’t that serious about your principles, so others won’t take them seriously, either.
I enjoy the classics, like this one from the Way Way Back Machine: ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ
Also, Hillel a few centuries later, but before Jesus was born, offered up this one when asked to teach a Roman everything about Judaism while standing on one foot. ““That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your friend, the rest [of the Torah] is commentary. Go and learn.”
I’m enjoying your conversation.
Hi David, I’ll do my best to address the questions you raised about about Sartre’s viewpoints, but please understand there are likely more knowedgable folks around that may understand his writings differently than I do. Personally, I found Sartre’s writings to speak to me and thus I consumed everything I could find by him, including his complex tome, “Being and Nothingness.” Whether I actually understood him is another matter, but I convinced myself I did understand his viewpoints and concluded they represented an accurate description of human conciousness as best as I could perceive it to be.
The idea of being “condemned to be free” seems to mean that we are absolutely free to chose and responsible for our choices or refusal to choose, whether we want to be or not. We are “condemned” in the sense that we cannot escape personal responsibility. Freedom is not a punishment, rather, it is our immutable state of existent being. I think Sartre is referring to “remorse or regrets” in the sense of being remorseful or regret for our existential freedom. I don’t read Sartre’s comment as referencing “remorse or regrets” in the sense of a lack of “remorse or regret” for the personal choices we freely make. I don’t know about human infallibility, but the idea that we alone bear responsibility for our choices certainly seems to support the notion of choosing “remorse or regret” after making a choice.
As for the assertion that “I am responsible for deciding what this ‘burden’ of personal responsibility means,” it does mean there is no valid objective moral code that can tell me if my behavior is good or bad, rather, that analysis is placed squarely on me. Your example, “If I kick my neighbor’s dog, hard, and without being provoked” is interesting in the implied premise that mere provocation can justify the kick. The argument that “he made me do it” falls flat under the viewpoint that we are condemned to be free to choose whether or not to kick the dog, regardless of the dog’s behavior. Indeed, followers of Jesus might argue one should turn the other cheek rather than cause harm to an animal.
And kicking the dog without provocation certainly doesn’t fall within normally accepted moral behavior, yet according to Sartre’s viewpoint of human freedom there is nothing that can effectively require me to choose to act in this way other than my personal choice, nor relieve me of fiull responsibility for that choice.
Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” is necessary to understand more of his personal responibility and coindemned to freedom ideas. “Bad faith” occurs when we try to attribute our choices to a cause outside of ourselves, such as bad parenting, actions of other people, civil or religious laws, or anything else other than ourselves. This occurs especially when we dislike or are ashamed of the choices we make. We seek reilief by blaming someone else or something else for our choice. An inherent inescapable realization that we cannot escape responsibility, however, leads to the personal angst often mentioned in Sartre’s writing.
So yes, if a person commits an atrocity and accepts full responsibility for that choice, then that same person has the ability to chose to declare that action moral or immoral and to decide whether to experience regret, remorse, or pride in the behavior.
The bottom line in Sartre’s philosophy seems to be in accord with Cory’s observation that “Jesus is a reasonable moral guide, worth listening to along with other good moral guides,” but we alone bear respoinsibility for choosing to listen or not. Likewise, deciding the cost we pay for that choice also falls on our shoulders.
Anyway, that is my likely oversimplified take and as I said, others may disagree or read Sartre much differently. One thing is certain, Sartre’s writing give us plenty of food (i.e. ideas) for thought and introspection, and for me, I found no other philosophical outlook more compelling as an accurate factual representation of my own human experience of conciousness as I waded through the teachings of numerous other philosophers and theologians.
Thanks for the excellent explanation. That helped a lot.
I want to start by rectifying my sloppy writing. In my question, I added the “without being provoked” qualifier because our family had just watched To Kill a Mockingbird, and after typing, “If I kick my neighbor’s dog, hard,” I thought of the scene with the rabid dog and wanted to preempt the potential rabbit trail of “Sometimes you do have to kick a dog hard. What if your neighbor has a rabid wolf lunging at your daughter? See, all morality is relative!” On my end, I did not imply that provocation would justify the kick, but I can see how my wording could be read that way. In no way do I think that it’s ok to punt a chihuahua over the fence for merely yapping at you. I added the phrase to avoid the complications of self-defense ethics, not invoke them. So if you’ll allow me a mulligan, I’ll amend it to, “If I kick my neighbor’s sleeping puppy, hard…”
With respect to Sarte, I think I’m starting to get it. “Condemned to be free” is a linguistic paradox that essentially means that at bottom our ability to choose is inexorable. I’m not free to be not-free. We’re in a volition zugzwang. I’m free to make any move on the board, but I’m not free to not-move.
And owning that level of freedom necessitates that each of us also accept the downstream responsibility for our actions. Don’t pass it off on anything or anyone else. That part really resonates with me. I do all that I can to correct ‘bad faith’ excuses in my children and the children I play chess with. The essence of chess sportsmanship is owning your loss, owning your bad moves, and congratulating someone who legitimately beat you. (Also not-gloating when you win.)
But more than that, this concept of bad faith definitely played a role in my depression. A financial dispute came up in my family where payments were expected from me. All my attempts to brush it off as ‘no big deal’ and ‘he didn’t really deserve it’ and ‘he’ll get over it’ hurt not just him, but me. More pain than I have ever experienced in my life.
The way out involved taking hyper-responsibility for all the pain I caused him and sacrificing my own financial well-being—and what I thought I ‘deserved’—to become at-one with him again. I had to put at-one-ment above my self interest and even above my sense of holding the moral high ground.
So yes, Sartre’s compass is pointing in the same direction as the one that I follow.
But as I thought about this over the week, I have three follow-up questions.
First, what are JPS’s recommendations for dealing with hyper-responsibility?
In my case, the guilt of what I had done made me a prisoner of my bed, ruminating on how I hadn’t kept my word to someone else to the level that they expected it from me. My self-loathing from trying to convince myself to believe my bad-faith excuses took me to the ER with chest pain so bad that I thought I had heart issues. I hardly ate, and when I did eat, I often retched it back up… losing a quarter of my body weight. For weeks, I felt like a worthless bundle of nerves burdening my family and its business. Where does JPS’s compass point in that situation? Would he recommend going to confession? Giving alms? Reconciling your rifts with other people? Caring for the sick? Adopting an orphan? Adopting a dog? Praying? Asking for help?
Taking on the burden of that level of responsibility is crushing. I don’t know of anybody who can consistently live up to a moral code, even when they invent it themselves. (Unless, of course, their code is utterly self-centered rationalizations. A narcissistic psychopath like the Joker can clear the bar, because his bar’s on the ground.) And yes, when you violate your code you absolutely should not take that lightly. Reflect on the violation so that you never do it again. Remove the plank in your own eye. But what comes after that? After JPS has led people into the slough of despond, how does he lead them out?
Second, on what grounds does JPS maintain that there is no valid objective moral code?
Reality is objective. Pain and suffering are universal, and certain actions objectively lead to pain and suffering. (e.g., Kicking a sleepy puppy causes suffering to almost all sleeping puppies and almost all of their owners.) Most forms of human flourishing are likewise universal. (e.g., We do better with water, love, and equality of opportunity.) A code that points us individually, and collectively, toward those elements of universal flourishing and away from those elements of universal suffering would thus be objective. (Consider The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.)
I agree with JPS, that you’re free, you’re free to follow the moral code or not. But you’re not free to make up your own. When I buy a $2 cup of coffee with a $5 bill, the cashier is free to give me only $1 in change, but he is not free to alter the facts of arithmetic to justify that transaction. A man is free to drink bleach and suffer the consequences, but he is not free to alter objective medical facts just by saying that bleach is nutritious. Similarly, a man is free to shoot innocent people at a post office, but when he says that that kind of action is good for the community, he’s contradicting objective principles of human flourishing.
Furthermore, in keeping with my replies to Cory, I’ll suggest that on practical grounds saying that everyone creates their own moral code is a social failure.
Psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple lived in the London slums and worked in one of its hospitals. He wrote an eye-opening account of the lives of his neighbors and their values in his book, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass. Like Harris, he is not religious. The book’s motivation:
In the third chapter, “Reader, She Married Him—Alas,” he gives a stomach-churning account of what the intelligent daughters of immigrants from India and Pakistan in his neighborhood often faced. In their teenage years, a tension developed between the daughter and the traditional moral code of the parents. In the case he writes about, the daughter wished to continue her education, to study English literature at university and eventually to become a journalist. But as far as her father was concerned, education, career, or choice of husbands was not for girls.
It doesn’t play out well. Please read the article to see for yourself. Dalrymple’s summation:
To his testimony, I’ll also link two studies that show:
Exposure to moral relativism leads to more cheating and more theft
Exposure to moral realism increases charitable donations
Third, I’m curious how JPS explains our freedom. How does he escape Dennett’s determinism?
Sartre clearly believes we have a consciousness that’s capable of choice, and that these choices can move our body—a material object that can affect other material objects. But matter is wholly determined. Nature is a closed network of interlocking causes and effects. Comets, pool balls, rivers, electric currents, living cells, and genes flow according to natural laws and don’t suddenly change directions in the presence of consciousness.
Thus, if one holds that there’s nothing outside of the material world, it seems like the only logically consistent conclusion is that consciousness and free will are illusions—epiphenomenal by-products exhausted from a ridiculously complex electro-chemical system. So what is JPS’s explanation for how consciousness is (1) capable of free choice and (2) intervenes in the causally closed network of matter?
PS My last link didn’t work. Here it is:
Exposure to moral realism increases charitable donations
Hi David, I enjoyed your comments and will do my best to address the additional questions you raised.
First you describe some very difficult times you experienced and you ask, “what are JPS’s recommendations for dealing with hyper-responsibility?” After further describing your own painful experiences you ask: “Where does JPS’s compass point in that situation? Would he recommend going to confession? Giving alms? Reconciling your rifts with other people? Caring for the sick? Adopting an orphan? Adopting a dog? Praying? Asking for help?”
I can’t recall any particular advice from Sartre about how to deal with hyper-responsibility other than to recognize how you deal with it must be your own free choice, not the result of some outside compulsion or cause. You can’t effectively find some outside means to help you through the morass, rather, you must face it from within by making free choices. The attempt to use means outside yourself, such as going to confession, giving alms, reconciliation by seeking forgiveness or making amends, doing good deeds, praying, turning to drugs, God, a guru, physical activity like etc, all might offer some short term relief but in the end the angst stays with you. That is not to say that many of these activities are not beneficial and worthwhile in general, rather, it is to say that they cannot resolve the angst of personal responsibility.
In this regard I recall one phrase that Sartre used to describe how to deal with the angst of freedom – “nothing will save us.” But I read this phrase in the manner in which I understood the context of Sartre’s writings about human consciousness. He explored the nature of human consciousness, not the nature of the external material world. As best as I could understand what he was getting at in the treatise “Being and Nothingness,” and other works, it was the idea that human consciousness is nothingness. It is an absence of being. It is an experience of existence rather than something tangible. And given my understanding of this concept (which could be way off base) I happily concluded that it made sense to me to interpret the phrase “nothing will save us” as referring to the nothingness we call consciousness and our own freedom from external causes. I am not sure how accurate this understanding of Sartre is, but it gave me great relief when confronting the angst of my own human existence.
You also posit these questions:
I don’t recall any direct language by Sartre designed to lead people out of despair other than accepting full responsibility and avoiding a “bad faith” effort to find some other source to explain, justify, forgive or relieve your actions. In line with this particular thought, as I noted above I personally seized on the observation that “nothing can save us” coupled with Sartre’s idea that consciousness is nothingness. This nothingness in turn means that we must actuate our very being, and our freedom from cause opens the door to an obligation or responsibility to choose. Thus, I personally choose to leave “bad faith” and despair behind.
<blockquote< Second, on what grounds does JPS maintain that there is no valid objective moral code?
A valid objective moral code seems to deny the freedom Sartre describes. If an act can be accounted for as moral or immoral based on an objective code, then there is neither freedom or choice. I think Sartre would consider belief in a “valid objective moral code” as classic “bad faith.”
Your observation that “Pain and suffering are universal, and certain actions objectively lead to pain and suffering,” seems a bit overbroad since the conscious choices of whether an individual experience of “pain and suffering” in the same manner as others seems to vary greatly with human individuals. For example, one identifiable class of individuals share what is called “masochism” and as I understand this these folks take joy and pleasure in what others might find intolerable. This seems to be evidence supporting the notion that we alone are responsible for our reactions to what might be considered by our society to be physical trauma.
The freedom you describe as “you’re free to follow the moral code or not” is not the freedom described by Sartre. Rather, Sartre’s concept of freedom seems to relate to how to choose to respond internally to your decisions to follow or not follow an outside moral code. Your internal decisions have no outside effect on whatever physical laws we have or how the other reacts to your decision – the other bears his or her own freedom and concurrent responsibility.
Again, these are my interpretations of what I have read in Sartre’s work. Other people probably interpret Sartre differently.
As for Dennet’s determinism, I have not read any direct discussion comparing Sartre and Dennett, although there may well be something out there. I did find an interesting paper that offers several ideas and opinions about how Sartre’s philosophical outlook deals with freedom and determination. See,
As always, it is good chatting with you.
Thank you again for your reply, you’re certainly giving me a lot to chew on.
Help me with this concept of angst. I don’t think my experience of guilt is quite what you’re talking about, because in my case it was both caused (and solved) externally. My situation came about from:
a) having a moral ideal
b) making deliberate choices to stray from that ideal, hurting someone else
c) making rationalizations to justify (b)
When I owned up to (b) and (c), made amends, and received forgiveness, the pain of my guilt (slowly) left.
From my perspective, I get ‘angst’ when I fail to live up to my moral code (and more ‘angst’ when I engage in rationalizations), but when I rectify my wrongs and abide by the code, my days are free of ‘angst’. I put angst in quotes there because that’s how I initially understood you, but it doesn’t appear that that’s quite what you (Sartre) meant.
So while my experience contained elements of hyper-responsibility and bad faith, it sounds like there’s another level of analysis I’m missing. If angst is not a failure to live up to one’s moral code, what is it? How does simply, innocently, being free lead to Sartre’s angst?
Is there anything objective for Sartre? It seems like one’s freedom and choice is likewise restricted by an objective table of multiplications, or even an objective table of coffee.
Your comments and questions are most stimulating and appreciated. They continue to help me realize my own insufficient understanding of Sartre’s philosophy. As I have frequently suggested in earlier comments, my views certainly might be different or more naive than others with a much more nuanced experience and understanding of Sartre’s works than I currently have. Most of my reading of Sartre was in his early works and less so in his later more political phase. Your dialog has induced me to look for credible online discussions of Sartre and to try to broaden my understanding of his philosophical outlook (hence my delay in attempting to develop meaningful responses to your queries). To that end I found a most useful summary of his early and later stages in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, A peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, in an article titled” Sartre’s Political Philosophy” by Storm Heter. For a more complete and likely more in depth and accurate understanding of Sartre’s writings and his transitions, this seems to be an excellent starting point. Here is that link:
Anyway, with that background and caveat, I will do my best to address your recent questions. I will divide my responses into separate blog comments no make them a bit easier to breakdown and read. Let me start by addressing a matter you raised in an earlier comment back which I did not directly address in my last replying comment.
And this seems related to your later question in a subsequent comment
I don’t think Sartre denies the material world, rather, I think he saw it as pretty much undifferentiated mass in his earlier writings. Rather than the Platonic view that matter exists as an eternal essence, such as a “tree” always exists as an ideal essence outside the physical world regardless of human awareness or recognition, I think the Sartre’s view was that the tree did not exist at all until formed by human consciousness to form the very concept of that tree. Without intentional consciousness creating the tree is simply was part of a material world of undifferentiated mass.
Thus, Sartre’s early explanation for consciousness and its capability for free choice as it intervenes in the closed network of matter seems to have been that consciousness is free, and actually must make some choice, to form that undifferentiated matter into whatever consciousness chooses. There is no material essence that controls how consciousness chooses to identify or form the matter that might be a tree. The same would seem to hold true for the idea of an objective moral code. As noted Sartre’s existentialism seems to pretty much reject the concept of some pre-existing ideal world, whether consisting of the ideal of physical objects or of ideal moral constructs.
Next you raise interesting questions about the so-called angst from bad faith that Sartre’s describes:
I think it is correct to say that in Sartre’s existentialism “. . . angst is not a failure to live up to one’s moral code.” As I understand it, the angst Sartre comes with the unavoidable awareness that we are in fact free and responsible, and no matter how we would like to have something or someone to hold accountable for our choices other than ourselves.
Thus, we are free to choose an objective moral code and if we fail to live up to it we cannot blame that failure for causing or our guilt or regret. Instead we must freely choose guilt or regret, and responsible for every choice we make, that guilt or regret and may do so even if we have done all we can to live up to the objective moral code.
Storm Heter offers this example from Sartre’s writings:
Thus, guilt or regret becomes painful only if we decide or choose it will be painful to experience guilt or regret. There is no objective barrier to our consciousness choosing to ignore or disregard those feelings.
Heter suggests, however, that Sartre significantly modified this view in later writings, based on the horror of the holocaust.
To me this seems a substantial change from my understanding of the experience of consciousness as set forth in Being and Nothingness and other earlier works. It does make sense, however, for Sartre’s later transition and adoption of a slightly modified form of Marxism in which he condemned the oppression and exploitation of the working class.
As I mentioned in my email, I don’t have time in the next few days to give a thorough reply, but here are some quick follow-up questions that could help me make sense of the objectiveness issue.
Sure, I get that the atoms which make up a tree are just ‘undifferentiated’ atoms until a thinking being turns labels them as a tree. And I’m likewise skeptical of the existence of a Platonic form of ‘tree’. But I’m not skeptical that there is a tree in my front yard. Does Sartre think that this tree objectively exists? And would he agree that this tree restricts my freedom to, say, drive a car across my front lawn? Obviously it doesn’t restrict my freedom to think about driving across my front lawn (doesn’t restrict my consciousness), but it does restrict me from actually driving across my lawn, no?
Second, would Sartre say that I am free to change the mathematical fact that $5 minus $2 is $3? Both math and morals are entirely abstract (unlike the tree), so if I can freely redefine morality, can I also redefine math?
Third, and this is what’s really curious…
When Sartre describes existential absurdity or angst, isn’t he describing it as an objective reality? And if so, doesn’t that limit our freedom?
My impression is that he doesn’t just say that he alone feels angst. He doesn’t leave it as his subjective feeling, but insists that we’re all in angst. Compare that to Pascal’s anguish:
To my ears, that sounds a lot like existential angst, but it’s fully subjective. Pascal doesn’t insist that I have to be terrified by eternity and infinity, he’s just telling us of his feeling. JPS instead bombards us with statements of objectivity. “Man is condemned to be free.” “Hell is other people.” “Man is a useless passion.” “Nothing can save us.” “Existence precedes essence.” He’s telling us how it is. Not just how it might be, or how it looks to him, but how it is. Objectively.
And in so doing, he’s in direct contradiction with the notion that “A valid objective [X] seems to deny the freedom Sartre describes. If an act can be accounted for… based on an objective [X], then there is neither freedom or choice.”
Thanks again for the conversation, and I will delve more deeply into these topics when I am able.
I don’t recall ever seeing anything from Sartre that denies the existence of objects, such as a tree in your front yard. As for driving your car across your front lawn, I think Sartre would argue that there would be no objective interference for your choice to “try” to drive across your front lawn, but wouldn’t deny that there are physical realities that could prevent you from succeeding. Sartre’s concept of “freedom” does not equate to being successful in any particular endeavor, rather it equates to the unavoidable freedom to decide whether to engage in the endeavor and to assess the nature of the outcome. From the earlier link I posted analyzing Sartre’s later development this point seems relatively clear: “[I]t is important not to conclude that one can be free in chains,” and “It would be quite wrong to interpret me as saying that man is free in all situations as the Stoics claimed.”
As for changing a “mathematical fact,” that seems a more complex question since math is an abstract concept rather than a physical reality like a tree in your front yard. I can see no reason why we wouldn’t be free to accept or reject the validity of any particular mathematical concept. Our choice may work to our detriment, but we must make a choice nonetheless.
To the extent that Sartre considers existential absurdity or angst as a necessary aspect of an unfulfilled human desire for a lack of freedom, i.e. some outside force or compulsion that can be blamed in a futile effort to avoid personal responsibility for a choice, I can see the argument that this would be considered an objective reality. From my understanding and perspective, however, this too would seem just another free choice rather than an objective reality. Otherwise the whole concept of “bad faith” makes no sense. “Bad faith” implies the possibility of the opposite, namely “good faith,” and as long as “good faith” remains a possibility the end result seems a matter of choice rather than some immutable human characteristic.
Pascal’s angst certainly seem similar since Pascal’s feeling of angst is not compelled. He has the free choice to view a short life and eternity differently. It seems a bit different, however, because that angst is based on something external to Pascal – time – a short life and eternity. Sartre’s existential angst seems to be based on something entirely internal, namely personal human freedom. So they are similar in the sense that we are free to choose our experience, and different in the sense that one is based on a non-human external temporal factors and the other on a purely internal non-temporal human condition.
As for Sartre’s description of the nature of humanity, it certainly seems true that he considers this description to be an objective. In particular, he would consider it an objective fact than we must choose, and that we are fully responsible for however we choose. In this sense, this statement seems incorrect: “If an act can be accounted for… based on an objective [X], then there is neither freedom or choice.” The act of choosing may be based on the objective nature of human consciousness but the choice is not and it seems to be the choice that we are responsibile for rather than the act of making that choice. And Sartre argues that humans are not, as a matter of objective fact, free not to make choices.
Take care, bcb
Thanks for the reply! Your explanations make sense, and I’m finding more common ground. I agree completely with what you said about the tree in my front yard. However, let’s explore the math question a bit deeper.
I can’t quite tell from this statement, so I have to ask… Do you and Sartre agree with me that there is such a thing as a valid mathematical concept? Do we agree that 5 − 2 = 3 is a statement about reality? Do we agree that 5 − 2 = 3 is a true statement? Do we agree that someone who asserts that 5 − 2 = 1 is wrong about reality?
Whether math can be considered an objective reality raises interesting questions. On the one hand, if we can agree on a universal method to assign particular values to numbers, then in many respects math seems a real or objective concept. But then we have to consider theories that encompass negative numbers, different bases, or perhaps even the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. At some point there appears to be disagreement about the universal application of math principles. I recall the existence of some arguments that use advanced calculations to prove that 2+2=5 rather than 4, which perhaps in turn sows doubt about 5-3=2. I would think Sartre would conclude that we are totally free to choose to create a system or accept an existing system of math, which seems to undermine the idea that particular methods of math are objective realities.
An objective reality is formless.
Only when observed by a mind, is there form.
√-1 is an imaginary number, dividing by zero is a glimpse at infinity, there evidence of oscillating parallel multiverses, dark matter and dark energy are evidence of faster than light velocities.
Nobody has a lock on truth, not Voltaire, not Marx and certainly not Sartre.
The statement “Nobody has a lock on truth” seems to be a self-contradiction, similar to “I can never tell you the truth.”
The statement “An objective reality is formless” seems to be another way of saying that without consciousness everything is simply undiffereniated mass, a concept suggested in my 2-4-22 comment above.
Anyway, welcome aboard gentlemen!
Yes, to communicate, all parties have to agree on the definitions of our words and symbols. If two people took the symbol “5” to mean 1 more than 2 then they could legitimately say to one another that “5” − 2 = 1. Likewise, using an alternative base like binary or hexadecimal is a formalized way of transposing numbers to a new system of symbols. 101 − 10 = 11 [binary] is the same statement as 5 − 2 = 3 [decimal]. The concepts are identical, it’s just a matter of symbol mapping. Since early computers were built using bits, we had to transpose values from base 10 to binary in order for the registers to hold numbers so that they could do computations with them.
As for 2 + 2 = 5, I’ve heard of that example as a cautionary tale for rounding, e.g., 2.4 + 2.4 = 4.8. And here again, the issue at hand is what the symbols represent. When rounding is involved, “2” represents any number in a range from 1.5ish to 2.49ish, and “5” is anywhere from 4.5ish to 5.49ish. (If there’s some other kind of calculation where 2 + 2 = 5, I’d love to learn more. And quantum mechanics is spooky, no doubt, but I don’t see how it has any bearing on abstract integers.)
So yes, our mapping of concepts onto words and symbols is arbitrary. Our choice of symbols is relativistic. And when the context isn’t absolutely clear, ambiguities can bedevil objectivity. But by following the wise sages who write end user license agreements, I could add more words to make sure the context is absolutely certain. Something like: In base 10 arithmetic, using only integers and no rounding, using only basic arithmetic and no other forms of mathematics, where − is defined as simple subtraction (that is, counting the number of objects left in a group after a specified number of objects is taken away) and the counting sequence goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… Is 5 − 2 = 3 an objective statement about reality?
I said earlier that I’m skeptical of Platonic forms. I don’t think that numbers and mathematical operations exist somewhere else waiting for us to discover them. Instead, we invented numbers and we invented addition, subtraction, etc. They are very primitive inventions, but inventions nonetheless. I remember Durant once describing a remote tribe where their counting system was just “one”, “two”, “many”. I can lose myself in trying to imagine what that sort of life is like. “I see two lions and many monkeys.” “My lucky brother still has many teeth.” And how would I go about trying to introduce bigger numbers to the tribe?
Anyway, what’s interesting to me is that even though the concepts of math were invented, the relationships between the concepts are ironclad objective truths. It’d be easier for me to suplex a freight train than to change the relationship 5 − 2 = 3.
Analogously, consider chess. The rules of chess were invented—they’re completely arbitrary. There are countless other ways they could have been, and historically, sometimes were. There are dozens of variant rulesets available. But once the rules of chess are fixed and agreed upon by the players, certain board positions inescapably become checkmate. After 17. Rd8 in the Opera Game, Black’s king is in checkmate. That’s an ironclad objective truth about the relationships of the concepts defined in the rules of chess. If we change a concept, the relationships change. For example, if the concept of the King was modified to allow Kings to move like a Knight, Rd8 is no longer checkmate.
A related reflection came to me at the scholastic tournament last Saturday. Nels and I were assisting Elliott by answering questions from players. One game was reduced to King + Bishop vs King and one of the players asked me if the game was over or not. I told them that they could agree to a draw or play on, but after 50 moves the player with just the King would be able to claim a draw and end the game. Nels overheard me say this and pulled me aside. He said that there was no point for them to continue and that I should have just ended the game. I agreed that there was no way for the player with the Bishop to make a checkmate, but since neither of the kids knew this, I wanted them to play out the 50 moves as a learning exercise. Nels wasn’t having it. He terminated their game, sat down next to the kids, and gave them a 5 minute lesson about insufficient mating material. And that was fine by me because that’s another way to teach the kids. (It’s just that my method didn’t take me away from my duties toward the rest of the room for 5 minutes.)
Anyway, I mentioned this story because insufficient mating material is another kind of objective relationship that arises from the arbitrarily created rules.
So bringing this back to freedom and JPS, I would agree that we were free to define the rules of chess in any number of ways. But once they are defined, ironclad objective relationships arise that will inhibit our freedom. I’m not free to move my Bishop like a Rook. I’m not free to make a checkmate with only my King and a minor piece. The crestfallen nobles were no longer free to win their game after 17. Rd8. They were free to do what plenty of little kids do… pick up their king, fly him across the board, and “take” the other player’s king. Yes, they were free to cheat. And they would have been free to change the rules of the game on the last move (“My opera box, my rules!”). But they weren’t free to win, consistent with the rules they started with.
Therefore, once JPS accepts a definition for “3” as “1 more than 2”, and “+” as something like “counting both groups together as one group”, his freedom is now restricted by the immutable objective statement of relationship: 2 + 1 = 3. And in this manner, the slightly more complicated expression 5 − 2 = 3 can also be derived.
JPS is still free to act contrary to this truth. He can knowingly use erroneous subtraction when filing his income taxes. Or if he operated an ice cream truck, he could cheat the ignorant tykes with improper change. But he is not free to set 5 cups on a table, take 2 of them away, and then have only 1 cup left.
And that last statement would still be true even if he was a primitive tribesman who had no symbol for “5” nor understanding of “−”.
It’s unlikely that we’ll find Sartre explicitly endorsing or rejecting this tangent, but is there anything here that you disagree with or would like to modify?
The End Times fulfill a prophesy and welcome a supernatural extraterrestrial to create a one-world government. No higher being could be anything but predatory. It’s dystopian fantasy run amok.
Some of us believe the Earth is consciously reacting to an infestation of humans.
Paul of Tarsus was hung over and had been smoking opium when he was overcome with it. Jesus of Nazareth was tempted by it in the desert after fasting. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have enjoyed hashish. Joseph Smith was 18, drunkenly praying that God would forgive him for sins of debauchery when he got it. Wovoka witnessed a solar eclipse on peyote that compelled a generation of Ghost Dancers. As a result of ingesting psychoactive fungi Heȟáka Sápa or Nicholas Black Elk rejected catholicism and returned to Lakota ways after he realized the Roman Church was committing crimes against his people.
Modern society” is a product of the forbidden fruit–agriculture. Cain, the farmer, slew Abel, the hunter-gatherer and, yes, humans’ collective knowledge is pushing us home to the stars whose dust make us who we are. Reproduction is the reason, food is the fuel. Humans are merely Terran tools to go forth and find more…unless or until we kill it before it kills us for taking more than our share.
Hi David, I don’t necessarily agree with all your conclusions, but after thinkiung about it for a while I am not really sure what more I can add at this point to my prior comments. But I really enjoyed your comments – thanks.
Thank you for the reply. Sure, I’m happy to rewind back to your previous statement and engage it more directly. Whether or not math is relative strikes me as an important issue for us to figure out.
Is it this one where the square root function is subtly misused?
If not, let me make sure I’m on the same page… In the expression “2+2=5” are you referring to the integers “2” and “5”? Is this expression using base 10 Arabic numerals where the counting begins with 1 (a single unit), followed by 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.? Does the “+” symbol represent the operator for standard integer addition… the one that we use on flashcards in elementary school? Does this expression use rounding?
And if the answers to the questions in that last paragraph are yes, yes, yes, and no… then are you truly saying that 2+2=5 is an accurate description of reality?
David, my reference to the concept that 2+2=5 was based on something I had read at some point without further exploring the premises or advanced calculations leading up to that statement. So I am unsure: whether the author was referencing an example “where the square root function is subtly misused;” or whether the reference may have been to particular integers; or whether Arabic numerals were counted in an unusual manner; or exactly how the “+” symbol was used; or whether there was rounding, etc.
Rather, my thought in our discussion was since that numbers and mathematics are abstract ideas rather than concrete physical entities it seems clear that they can represent different realities depending on individual perceptions and choices and this particular example came to mind.
So, I am not “saying that 2+2=5 is an accurate description of reality” experienced by everyone, but I acknowledge that it may well be “an accurate description of reality” experienced by some. Personally, I presently fall into the 2+2=4 camp.
I’ve given your statements a lot of thought and aborted a couple drafts. Rather than make responses on what could be false assumptions, I figured I should instead just ask for clarity.
What do you mean by “realities” in your last comment?
The way I use the word, “reality” refers to everything… my perception, your perception, my perspective, your perspective, my thoughts, your thoughts, my dreams, your dreams, and everything that’s independent of both of us… trees, books, cars, other people, math, logic, checkmates, history, language, etc. The total collection of everything in every universe is what I call “reality”.
When a drunk person and sober person watch the host put two wine bottles on a table, followed by another two wine bottles, they are both observing an instance of “2 + 2”. Perception is a visual term. The sober’s visual assessment is that there are 4 bottles on the table, while the drunk perceives 8. These are certainly two separate perceptions, which inform unique perspectives. But by my terminology, they don’t make up distinct realities. There is one reality that contains differing perspectives. Not two realities.
If you use “realities” as a synonym for “perspectives”, what word would you use to refer to the collection of all perspectives, the objective world, and everything else?
“Reality” strikes me as a purely human construct. As such, it must necessarily differ according to human perception. Without human organization the physical world is nothing more than undifferentiated mass. The same seems to hold true for non-physical human experience.
I kind of like the comment by psychologist, author and professional poker player Maria Konnikova, who writes in The Biggest Bluff: “There is no such thing as objective reality. Every time we experience something, we interpret it for ourselves.”
Indeed, the very concept of “objective reality” is a human construct and has meaning only within human perception. Thus, it would seem “perception” or “human perception” would be an appropriate word that answers your question:
After all, “perception” it not in any way limited, but is totally dependent on each individual human’s assessment of his or own experience, and so would include all such interpretations whether consistent with or in conflict with the interpretations on other humans. And if you define the “objective world” as a subset of a “collection of all perspectives,” then “perception” seems to cover it too. As for “everything else” I’m not sure what that might refer to other than perhaps non-corporeal ideas or beliefs. This subset also seems best described as “perception.”
I don’t think it’s accurate to say humans are the only differentiators of matter. Prior to primates, didn’t honeybees differentiate pollen from the rest of the physical world? In that sense it seems that all living things make differentiations in the physical world. Their survival depends on it.
Do you agree? Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by (un-)differentiation?
My reference to (un)-differentiation parrots what I have read and tend to see as accurate when describing how human consciousness interacts with the external world.
For the honeybee example, the argument would be that they too are part of the undifferentiated mass until we humans identify and seek to categorize them. And although I am no expert on honeybees I would postulate that it is likely that not all experts perceive honeybees or their behavior in an identical fashion. Each individual expert has established what he or she considers to be reality and while many, perhaps even most, such perceptions are relatively consistent with each other, I speculate that there are individuals that experience personal realities about honeybees with substantial differences. Each of us may want to believe our own particular reality is the objective and universally true reality, but even that concept seems to have different edges for different individuals.
Thus, for me, I would like to believe that my perceptions have helped me understand a universally correct reality about honeybees consistent with your description, yet my view of the nature of human consciousness denies any such objective reality. I can’t know with certainty whether or how “all living things make differentiations in the physical world” nor whether “Their survival depends on it.” These certainly seem like reasonable suppositions, yet its seems that they are more likely purely human constructs.
Let me substitute “reality” for “world” in two spots and then paraphrase the argument at page 4 of Salam Hawa in a short essay titled “Language as Freedom in Sartre’s Philosophy”
Thank you for the detailed reply and linked essay. It greatly helped me understand where you’re coming from.
I understand now how subjectivity is core to Sartre’s perspective, and thus why you were disinclined to agree with my statement about bees. So let me try again without objectiveness. This time I’m not asking about consensus from all the experts. I’m not asking for a sweeping description that universally applies to every honeybee that ever existed or will exist. I’m not asking for certainty. Just shooting for tentative common agreement from what we each perceive.
From what you personally know about bees, either by direct observation and/or from authorities, do you agree with me that at least one bee exists that differentiates between pollen and rocks… in that it collects pollen while ignoring rocks?
Hi David, from what little I imagine about the nature of a bee I do not think a single bee has the freedom to differentiate between pollen and rocks or anything thing else in the manner we have been discussing. Rather I suspect the bee acts from involuntary instinct rather than a compelled free choice when it collects pollen rather than rocks.
Indeed, since I am apparently a person rather than a bee I have no basis to comfortably speculate about whether even one bee experiences, or even could experience, a consciousness similar to what I personally experience as a person. Interestingly, there are those that might have a different perception than I do. In the Jainist religion, for example. “Jains believe plants, animals, and even some nonliving things (like air and water) have souls, just as humans do.”
I don’t know if this Jainist belief equates to bees having a human-like consciousness, or having the freedom to differentiate, but Jains seem to be an example of people that perceive a much different reality than I do about the nature of bees.
Fair enough. Do you think there exists a single cat, dog, mouse, chimp, or elephant that has the freedom to differentiate one piece of mass from another? A cat choosing to sidle up to its owner. A dog choosing to run into the field to scare up some pheasants. A chimp choosing to leave its tribe after getting a beating from the alpha male.
Just as with insects I really have no basis to speculate about whether non-human mammals have a consciousness similar to what I perceive to have as a person.
As an aside, however, I suspect it is our own consciousness that freely chooses to personify the consciousness of other beings, perhaps with the hope of finding an objective reality that we can blame for our choices. After, we would hardly find a moral fault with an animal for making some choice we deemed harmful in the same way we might conclude our own choices represent a moral failing. Thus, if an animal experiences the same free choice as a person, that person’s choices can be no more immoral than the animal’s choices.
Do you think dogs, cats, mice, chimps, or elephants have the freedom to choose to feel regret or guilt about one of their choices? Are there any studies that suggest non-human mammals commit suicide based on regret or depression rather than as a lemming following the group without an apparent awareness of what is coming?
That’s a great question. Twain said, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” And while that’s technically true—no other animal gets red in the face—there are possible signs of shame or regret in some mammals. After being scolded, a pet dog may hide under the bed and cover its face with its paws (like Genesis 3:8). My kids’ cats react in a similar manner when we walk into the room and catch them on a piece of furniture that they aren’t supposed to be on. And when one of them makes a mess of vomit or diarrhea (when we’re out of the house), we can often tell that something happened because they avoid the room where the accident happened. As for animal depression, Jordan Peterson references studies about lobsters, rats, and chimps to support his psychological points.
Are these animal behaviors similar to humans because of common genes, common ancestry, and common biochemistry?
Or, as you suggested, are people looking at animals and being anthropomorphic?
I’m sympathetic to both sides here. To me, the most interesting thinkers alive right now are the ones who research and speculate on these topics… the neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and evolutionary psychologists. Guys like Iain McGilchrist, Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker. (All atheists or agnostics, to my knowledge.)
Peterson’s videos are the most viewed because of his articulate charisma (a passionate rapid delivery à la Cory), but he also has the most critics because he considers free speech non-negotiable for a healthy civilization. However, it’s the Oxford psychiatrist-philosopher Iain McGilchrist who strikes me as the most robust. I’m in the middle of reading McGilchrist’s latest book and when I read his chapter on Sciences Claims on Truth last week, he intensified the point about objectivity you had just made:
So what direction does my inclined plane tilt on animal intelligence/consciousness? Bear in mind that these are hard questions, and in all things generally, but especially in this realm, I will readily abandon my stated position when exposed to new evidence or a better explanation. If there are any errors in my assessment I wish to be rid of them and bend my understanding nearer to the truth.
I agree with you that there is a huge chasm between human consciousness and anything else we perceive in the physical world. I hadn’t thought of suicide as a marker for humanity before, and to me it’s a slightly murky one, given that some animals will starve themselves out of grief. But there are other signs of what Alan Alda elegantly named The Human Spark:
– Tame fire
– Paint cave walls (other animals can paint, but only after being trained by people and provided with man-made paints and brushes)
– Create art for art’s sake / contemplate aesthetics
– Create music simply to convey an emotion or mood to another person
– Create abstract a priori systems like chess, geometry, calculus, and FORTRAN
– Gödel’s incompleteness theorems
– Create a collected body of observations called science to help us differentiate valid patterns in the physical world from hunches and superstitions
– Contemplate the collection of “everything” (e.g., reality, physics & metaphysics, the cosmos, the Tao, the heavens and the earth, “Truth with a capital T”)
– Contemplate the origin of the physical world
– Contemplate the ultimate fate of the physical world
– Contemplate our own death
– Codify laws (i.e., elevate a pattern of behavior to be our ruler, instead of a physical member of the species)
– Wear clothes
– Tattoo themselves
– Pray (a dog will beg for a treat, but only a person will pray to a dead ancestor or non-physical entity)
– Build places of worship
Meanwhile, I don’t accept that the best explanation for all animal behavior is “involuntary instinct rather than a compelled free choice.” Mostly my resistance is that the phrase “involuntary instinct” sounds to me like it explains something when it really doesn’t. I see the word “instinct” as “we don’t really know why, but somehow this species reliably does this.” And if we don’t know why, we can’t assume it’s involuntary.
I started with the humble bee because bees not only “differentiate” pollen sources from the rest of nature, but they also communicate the location of the pollen sources to other bees at the hive through a sophisticated dance routine. They use a language—the dance movements are abstractions, symbols, that transfer information to their colleagues. It’s like a map from one sailor to another, that gives an approximation of the coastline and marks where the port is. (Is a map a language? It seems more accurate to me to think that language is a map.)
Not only do honeybees have a complex communication system, they are communicating meaning to one another. They are literally transmitting a moral compass… geographically pointing other bees—by angles based on the sun’s current position—in a specific direction for the flourishing of the community.
So while we could assume that the bees are doing this complicated dance as mindless automatons, to me it’s more likely that the bees chose this dance to enhance their productivity, and it’s been propagated through time as a (mostly) beneficial cultural tradition—that is, transferred as a piece of knowledge instead of a piece of genetics. The bees learn the dance from each other and can also learn new dialects from foreign species. The observing bees don’t all automatically follow the dancer; many go it alone to their past preferred pollen spots, even when those spots have stopped being productive. And new recruits that are learning the language start out flying in the wrong direction.
I’m not a Jain. I’m not saying that bees have freedom like us. But I don’t think that they have zero freedom.
Consciousness cannot be detected directly, so the best we can do is infer it from behavior. (We have the same conundrum for human consciousness. Does grandpa still have his consciousness in late-stage Alzheimer’s or when he’s been in a coma for 2 months? Does a fetus have consciousness at 4 weeks? Or 34 weeks?) In this video, McGilchrist gives a fascinating overview of matter and potential consciousness in the non-human world.
But all that said, I do observe there’s a chasm between human consciousness and chimpanzee consciousness. Maybe there was a bridge across this chasm long ago—homo heidelbergensis?—but that’s just speculation. If we were there with heidelbergensis we may still see a chasm of consciousness between them and everything else around and before them. There may never be a detectable bridge.
So is the separation of animal consciousness from human consciousness one of degree or of kind? What are Sartre’s thoughts here? Does he talk about animals at all? Does he deny all consciousness outside of people? i.e., Humans have freedom, but nothing else in the physical world does—in other words, the non-human physical world is a closed system of interlocking cause and effect. Or perhaps he admits animal consciousness/freedom but classifies it as a difference in kind, not degree? Something else?
P.S. Why do depressed people go through with suicide when depressed animals rarely, if ever, do? Because for humans, ideas are the most powerful natural force. Ideas can cause way more good and way more misery than anything else. My take is that animals don’t have ideas because they don’t have the kind of language that we have. Animal languages are basic, pragmatic, and survival-based. Human language transcends that.
People have ideas, but ideas can also have people. I am agnostic (“without knowledge”) regarding demon possession, but ideological possession is an omnipresent danger. Politically, religiously, philosophically, and psychologically we can be trapped into a spiral of thinking that grinds us into a fruitless petty small soul… or worse, an angry belligerent lashing out against perceived grudges or others’ perceptions of reality. The human brain’s left hemisphere (the language hemisphere) tends to be an echo chamber. It chooses to reinforce its prior beliefs, often fabricating stories. Incurvatus in se—an unfortunate side effect of our capacity for language. I vividly remember the pain of my depression when the sound of my own wheels drove me crazy. When I was nearest to suicide, I felt certain that I would never find a moment of happiness again, and that my existence was doing nothing but constantly bringing down everyone around me. Both lies, fabricated by my brain to reinforce my mood. And that’s why the advice I was given was to “get out”—go for a walk, do crossword puzzles, serve at a soup kitchen, play music, exercise, call an old friend—anything but stay in bed and spin. Incurvatus in se. I was only completely out of it once I was “saved”, an experience I still can’t fathom… but I am oh-so-grateful.
Most animals also have to work for a living. It takes wealth and ease to be really depressed. Happiness rates in American children were 5-8 times higher in the 1930s than they are today… and we are significantly better off materially now. It’s only once you’ve stockpiled enough food that you can really turn in on yourself.
Durant was also an agnostic.
David, you have provided substantial food for thought, plus some potentially interesting video links to check out. I appreciate your comments and perspective.
As for Sartre and animals, I have no recollection of reading that type of analysis or discussion in Sartre’s work. There may be something out there that I am not aware of.
I mentioned our discussion to my adult daughter and she reference a concept from quantum mechanics analysis relating to the objective reality question – the “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experient where the cat “may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead as a result of its fate being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur.”
Interesting that you should mention Schrödinger! McGilchrist launches his book from a thought of his, and makes several other references to his thinking throughout. You can hear Iain reading his introduction here; Schrödinger enters at 4:37.
The cat analogy is so interesting to me because it takes physics right up to the brink of incorporating consciousness in science. Quantum states are just probabilities until an observer “opens the box”. Without the observer, the cat is both dead and alive… a hypothetical awaiting a judgment of fact. But what is the observer? How can matter observe, and how does the act of merely observing something change a quantum physical state from a possibility to an actuality?
Most atheists I encounter come from the position that consciousness is an epiphenomenal byproduct of matter. Free will is an illusion. Barr’s assessment throws a substantial challenge to that worldview.
But Sartre is different. From what you’ve told me, I don’t gather that he would have any trouble with Barr’s explanation. So much the better. But what, then, is Sartre’s explanation for where human consciousness came from? If it doesn’t come from God or anything else supernatural… and it doesn’t come as a by-product from matter operating according to natural laws (which would invalidate his radical freedom)… and you don’t see that he ever leans on an explanation that it might have come from lower animals… where does he think it came from?