Thursday, January 09, 2014

[Rant] Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God

Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God: I am not a particularly spiritual person. Be it formal religion or new agey, the force of motivation from some intangible entity has never really hit me. Many people I know and respect draw a lot strength from prayer or meditation. I just never have. This is probably my loss. I have come to think of spirituality as an congenital ability; you are born inclined to it or not, although I have no sort of objective reason for believing that other than my own experience (sample size=1).

On the other hand, many young people I know of are fairly solidly atheist. At least they think they are -- young people (late teens, early twenties) don't know what they don't know yet. They speak of believers in that snarky, groundlessly arrogant way the young people speak (I know I did). They sneer at Creationists who worship a Old White-Haired Man in The Sky and giggle equating God to a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Anyway, all this has caused me to try to crystallize my own thoughts on the topic. So here we go.

The first question is always, What you mean by “God"? This is where the kiddies get confused. They don't differentiate between religion and God. That's because they are not actually trying to advance an argument but position their self and public images. For those of us seeking understanding, we have to get the basics down first. I would state it as follows. God is an a priori moral force. Religion is a codification of a method to reconcile with that force.

Let's start with Religion. You don't pick a religion, it picks you. Or so the saying goes. The belief in a certain religious creed is not generally the result of step by step logical analysis from a neutral starting point. What typically happens is that you are exposed to a certain dogma and you “see the truth in it". That is to say, it strikes you as self-evident. It is a matter of faith. A thing you know in your heart. This has never happened to me. No such creed has affected me that way. I do not discount the possibility or deny its validity. Too many people throughout history have experienced it, and too many people I know and respect are religious, for me to dismiss it. Also, how foolish would I have to be to think that because I haven't experienced something it cannot exist. Not only that, it may yet happen to me.

It's probably appropriate to talk about the special case of Christianity at this point. Beyond the resistance to religion in general, the kiddies often single out Christianity for special derision. One reason for that is that it's easy. Nobody gets punished for criticizing Christianity and no one issues a Fatwa or stages a riot. To the kiddies, one suspects, this is just another form of rebellion for the sake of image position. As post facto justification they often trumpet the idea that Christianity has caused little more than suffering throughout history. Well, all ideas have can cause suffering in the hands of mere humans. My response would be that politics probably caused more death and suffering the 20th century alone than Christianity has in a more than a millenium, yet they don't seem to be down on taking political stands. I would also point out the long, long history of Catholic scientific inquiry, the Puritan/Protestant work ethic whose economic effect underlies much of our prosperity, and the notions of forgiveness and redemption that pervade our culture.

So. I don't have religion, but I'm not a disbeliever (and I admire Christians and Christianity). What about God? Well one way to approach this question is to look at the landscape minus god. I can think of 3 possibilities approaches to morality absent God:

1) Nihilism. There is no morality. Good and bad are meaningless. This is a terrible thing to contemplate because it turns out that nothing matters. We live, suffer and exult as we might, then die, with no point to it. We are just minor blips of probability that popped up in the course of existence. Whether you lived well or poorly, selfishly or generously, long or short -- it didn't matter. You could even argue that in this case only the present moment matters so feel free to compound nihilism with narcissism. We have no hard evidence that this is not the case -- no scientific proof whatsoever. Apart from repulsion at these conclusions, to accept this as definitive is to again, say that until something is proven to exist, it doesn't. That strikes me as arrogant, for reasons that I will explain shortly. I see no reason to be confident that what I can't prove doesn't exist.

(Besides, Nihilists are known to cavort with nine-toed women. But if you are a nihilist, here's your toothpaste.)

2) Secular humanism. This is the one I'm least clear on, but it seems there is a philosophical school that was able to generate some sort of moral impetus that emerged from within the human mind. Or something? I can't figure it. Naive people such as me often hear concepts like “the greatest good for the greatest number" or similar principle as descriptions of humanist morality, but we are still left with good and bad as arbitrary rules of humanity with no absolute basis. There may be more to this that I don't know about, but it seems like a flowery covering over a tautology: “What we say is good is good."

3) Evo-psych. This is comparatively newish, but it supposes that morality, instead of being a priori, is a product of evolution. For whatever reason, a moral instinct has given homo sapiens a comparative advantage for the survival of the species. At first glance this seems like a good one. And it accounts for the varying influence of morality across people, races, and cultures -- the way physical characteristics vary. “What helps the species to survive is good." This idea probably has legs and will be with us for the duration. But the implications are troubling. a) What about activities that have no bearing on the good of the species. Do they have no right or wrong associated with them? That is to say, this may work in aggregate but for any given individual, most actions will not be connect to survival of the species and thus, amoral. Pushed further, how do you know if your actions are pluses or minus for species survival. Even if the evo-psych concept is true (who knows), it is, for practical purposes, pretty much useless as a guide to behavior.

So what about an a priori God. Well, a priori itself is not a concept that sits well in the mind. You can always ask “What came before that?" on to infinity. I won't say God was born in the Big Bang because “What came before the Big Bang?" is a popular question to ask in theoretical physics these days. If something came before it, it is not a priori. To me a priori would mean God is simultaneous and interwoven with existence itself. So am I saying that a big white-haired man in the sky has been there forever and ever? (That's what the kiddies would ask.) If I believed in an a priori God my answer would be yes. Obviously not a big white-haired man, but I would be saying the nature of existence carries a moral force. I know. It sounds absurd.

But is it really absurd? Is it so difficult to imagine that the various fields and forces of existence are arranged in such a way that encourages certain forms of actions or behaviors. To me that is no less absurd than spooky action at a distance or dark energy or the Uncertainty Principle. So no I cannot dismiss that idea of God, a priori, even without film at eleven.

My current belief is that we cannot know. Not that we simply haven't discover proof or disproof, but we cannot discover it. It is beyond our ability to see. It is like Infinity itself, a concept we made up because our minds are insufficient to comprehend it. Presenting us with evidence of a moral force, or lack thereof, would be like an reading Hamlet to an ant. I think the exact term for such a belief is Mysterianism. Sounds cool. I'll take it. But again, no help on question of how to live.

But if we can't know the nature of God, how do you know how to live? I base my philosophy on a form of Pascal's Wager. If there really is no God -- if one of those three godless realities is the truth -- then it doesn't matter if I'm good or evil. I'll live whatever life and die pointlessly. Otherwise, in an existence with an a priori God, there is value to being Good. So probably indicates the smart way to live is to be Good. Now it's just a question of figuring out what is Good.

Answers to the question of what is Good, or what does God want, are the province of religion, of which I have none. So I have come up with something makeshift. The only thing I can think of that can possibly matter past your life is affecting the lives of others for the better. That is my working definition of Good. Determining what affects people for the better -- what is Good -- is not a simple task. It is probably the most complex task imaginable. It is not what is shallowly described by the simple cliches and sentimentality of day-to-day life. It would require an essay in itself to describe even the basic ideas behind it (maybe that's next). But as far as I can determine it is the only way to make your life have value.

So that's where I'm at with respect to God. You'll note that, unlike the atheist kiddies, I am not only uncertain in my conclusion, I am uncertain in my uncertainty. That's why nobody pays me for my opinions.