Category Archives: Life

How Far Would You Go to Prevent the Extinction of the Human Race?

In the movie Snowpiercer, a disastrous attempt at controlling climate change has exterminated all of humanity except the passengers on a high-tech train ruthlessly run by Ed Harris’ character, Wilford. An interesting question that comes up is what actions would be justified to keep the human race from going extinct.

If you were in charge of humanity in crisis, which would you choose: killing some people to keep the ecological balance, or letting everyone live, with the result that all will die sooner rather than later?

To hear Ed Harris / Wilford tell it, of course you should keep humanity alive — by any means necessary. But why? The human race will go extinct at some point. Wouldn’t it mean more if we were to reach a pinnacle of love and starve to death in each others’ arms, than if we were to survive another few hundred years in savagery?

The universe will go on without us.  There is a lot of beauty in the way it unfolds. Isn’t quality more important than quantity in any work of art?

What do you think? How far would you go to keep humanity alive?

Do Animals Believe in God?

Whenever we humans have been wrong about animals, it has been because we have underestimated them. As a schoolboy, I was taught that animals could not reason, solve problems, or use tools. False, false, and false. Earlier than that, scientists believed animals even as advanced as other primates could not feel pain. Way false.

Any dog-owner knows that animals can anticipate and even manipulate the thoughts of members of other species (their human companions).

Animals adopt children, display altruistic behavior, and wage organized war. Elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees have all been observed to take special care of their dead. All of this was unthinkable a hundred years ago.

If you are a religious person, you have your own reasons for believing in God. But think for a moment about people in general, especially primitive people. Why do they pray for rain? Why do they sacrifice their daughters to volcano gods? Why do they believe every tree and rock has a spirit? Surely humans’ hyper-developed sense of agency has something to do with it. We believe there are personal forces behind events, even when there are not.

It’s easy to see why we have evolved to go overboard in this way. If one of your great-great-…-great grandparents had seen the grass rustling on the savanna and mistakenly thought a lion lurked there, he might waste a few calories running away from nothing, but otherwise no harm done. The opposite error, believing there was no lion when it was right there stalking its dinner, would have been fatal and you would not be here. In that environment, it would not take long to evolve a bias for seeing animate forces behind events.

That environment was also the one that shaped the forbears of our animal cousins. Why wouldn’t the more cognitively endowed among them evolve a belief in some sort of god exactly as we have?

Maybe animals are smarter than we are, in a way: they know when to stop. After all, they have never been observed sacrificing their daughters to volcano gods, or doing rain dances. But why wouldn’t animals have an animistic view of nature? And isn’t animism a form of polytheism? And mightn’t that polytheism have developed into a proto-theology in some of the more advanced animals? Maybe they can’t talk about it with each other (or maybe they can), but who knows what’s going on in their heads?

What do you think?

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.

Good and Evil vs Well-Being

In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris asks a provocative question:

What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own that that of others? Would we lose anything important?

Surly the strongest objection to Harris’s proposal would come from the religious. Based on my own experience in the evangelical church, I know they would protest that a focus on well-being alone would cause us to miss a relationship with God, which is based on faith, and we would be deaf to those moral truths which are spiritually discerned.

I have already written a post on why I am profoundly skeptical of “spiritual discernment” as a means of discovering truth. I would add to it this thought: if we humans are equipped with an antenna that receives spiritual insights from a supernatural being, it has proven — proven — to be so unreliable as to be useless.

Aside from the fact that the world’s “great faiths” are mutually exclusive, I consider the spiritually discerned “truths” that have been promulgated in my own, evangelical tradition. These would include everything from statements that the Earth was created in 4004 BC to firm announcements that it would end in 2011 AD (as well as by any number of other dates that have passed unremarkably into history). Between those dates, spiritual discernment in its strongest form, direct revelation, has led us to commit genocide and rape, endorse slavery, and even discriminate against the handicapped.

Can we be honest and admit that spiritual discernment does not work?

If you wish to attract people to faith, consider Pope Francis. Although a man of faith, his main focus is on the temporal well-being of the poor and marginalized. Paradoxically, he has done more to attract people to the Catholic faith than his predecessor, who was more focused on what was unique about the faith itself (i.e., its dogmas).

My answer to Sam Harris’s question is that the interests of both the secular and religious would be better-served if we were to focus on universally recognized measures of well-being rather than our own ideas of right and wrong. What do you think?

The Bad Life, the Good Life, and Moral Realism

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip to the American Southwest to attend a Quaker retreat. (These were the same long-suffering grandparents who took me to the eclipse that I missed while standing right under it.) I remember them asking what I thought of medical missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to relieving the suffering of the poor.  A particularly obnoxious evangelical at the time, I answered that any missionary who merely did “good works” but did not concern himself with the saving of souls was wasting his time.

To me, good works did not even count unless performed in the context of glorifying God or leading people to him.

And then there’s the matter of motive. I recall learning at the summer camp where I became a Christian that even our good works are actually selfish, for our motive is to make ourselves feel good.

As the Bible says, “Our righteousness is as filthy rags.”

My earlier views embarrass me now, but at least I got one thing right: moral truths really do exist. I remain convinced of this even though I have cut the line to the Christian faith that was once my anchor. Why do I still believe in right and wrong? If morality is not grounded in glorifying God, how can it objectively exist?

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris invites us to imagine two lives: a Bad one endured by a refugee of guerrilla war in Africa whose husband and children have been hacked to death by machetes; and a Good one enjoyed in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and excellent health.

Surely, he argues, someone who seeks to move as many people as possible from the Bad Life to the Good is on a better moral track than someone who seeks to immiserate all and sundry. And since what makes a life Good or Bad is nothing more nor less than the brain state of the person living it, and brain state is a physical fact about the world, we can see that morality is ultimately anchored in hard facts. Moral facts are exactly as real as facts about our blood pressure or oxytocin levels.

There are many possible objections to this argument, and I’ll consider some in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll illustrate with what Dr. Harris would say to a hard-core evangelical like my former self.

A theist, he says, merely expands the notion of brain-state to include God’s brain. Thus, moral realism continues to be grounded on the brain-states of conscious beings.

One can do similar jiu jitsu to accommodate an afterlife: simply expand the time-span for measuring brain state.

Having subscribed to both secular and religious morality at different times in my life, I confess that I find Dr. Harris’s attempts to reconcile them to be slightly artificial. Although including God’s brain-state and an eternal time-frame in one’s considerations may reconcile the approaches in theory, the theist’s tools for learning about the unseen are so different from the ways we learn about each other here on Earth, that they feel like completely different systems in practice.

Maybe that will be a good place to begin the next post: contrasting faith-based morality with morality based on elevating the well-being of conscious, mortal creatures.

In the meantime, how about you? Do you believe that moral facts are just as real as physical ones? Do you buy Sam Harris’s argument that they are related?

How I Missed a Total Eclipse while Standing Right Under It

When my children were younger, they often asked, “Daddy, tell us a story of when you were a little kid.” Here’s one I wish I had told more often.

When I was twelve years old, my grandparents took me to see a total eclipse of the sun (map here). It was a pretty big deal. Not only was there going to be an eclipse, but a rocket would be launched to study it. All this was to take place in the neighboring state of Delaware, so off we went.

A large crowd had gathered to see eclipse and rocket. The authorities gave everyone a small piece of dark plastic framed in white cardboard through which we could see the eclipse without being struck blind. (The danger of looking at the eclipse without eye protection was firmly impressed on me!)

Being a 12-year-old boy who grew up during the decade that saw the first man walk on the moon, I was just as interested in the rocket as in the eclipse. What’s more, I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was determined to capture the rocket and the eclipse on film.

I had my Kodak Instamatic and a plan. When the eclipse started, I would first wait for the rocket to launch, and get a picture of it. Second, I would put the plastic shield over my camera and photograph the eclipse. (If the shield was necessary for my eyes, it must be necessary for the camera, too, right?) Finally, I would look through the shield myself. My plan ensured that I would capture everything on film so I could enjoy it forever, as well as see the eclipse in person.

A long and agitated wait…

The sky darkened and I prepared my camera.

Everyone was looking through their plastic shields, but not me! I didn’t want to miss that rocket! I knew it would only be streaking skyward for a few seconds, so I kept my finger on the button of my camera and did not allow myself to be distracted by anything else.

It was growing darker by the second, but still no rocket. Evidently that rocket was not going up until the eclipse was total, but I continued to wait anxiously.

Finally, the rocket  launched. Snap! I got my picture. The eclipse was already a little more than half-way over, and I still had parts two and three of my plan ahead of me.

When you’re an excited, 12-year-old boy under time pressure at the event of a lifetime, it’s surprising how long it can take to position a one-inch-square piece of plastic in front of the tiny lens of a cheap camera and take a picture. Especially when you’re not sure just where to point your camera because said piece of plastic is supposed to be covering your eye as well as the camera. And especially when it’s hard to hold the plastic perfectly over the lens as you move the camera into its uncertain position. And most especially when you’re only going to get one chance.

After much fumbling around, I finally took what I thought might be a picture of the eclipse.

The eclipse had already been at its midpoint when the rocket had launched. By the time I got my picture of the eclipse, it was nearly over. When I finally put the camera down and looked through the plastic myself, it was over.

I had missed it!!

The weeping and gnashing of teeth that shall arise from people who have missed their chance to go to heaven will have nothing on the wailing that came from the 12-year-old boy who missed that eclipse. Theirs will supposedly be because they had been too focused on passing pleasures while neglecting their futures; mine was the opposite: I had been so focused on photographs for the future that I had missed the present.

When my pictures came back from the developer, the rocket was indistinct and the eclipse didn’t look like much at all. I had prepared and sacrificed for … nothing.

I don’t even remember when I threw the photos away.

Many people think that unless life goes on forever, it has no purpose and there’s no reason to enjoy it. Try telling that to a 12-year-old boy who missed the present because he was so obsessed with a future that never came.

After the eclipse, my grandfather told me that he had stolen a quick look at the sun with his naked eye.

He had not gone blind.