Category Archives: Life

Dancing on the Feet of Chance

When my daughters were small, we used to dance with one of them standing on my feet: I would dance and she would go along for the ride. Our course was up to me, but she enjoyed wherever I would take her. Sometimes, there wasn’t even any music — no external justification for the dance, if you will — just a light-hearted communion between father and daughter.

That’s what came to my mind when I read this passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The wise man, Zarathustra, is speaking to the pre-dawn sky.

Continue reading

My New Friend, the Toll Light

Way back in 2011, I confessed my love for the woman in my GPS. I still love her, but I have a new friend: the green Thank You light at the tool booth.

This year, I finally joined the rest of the country in using a transponder at toll booths instead of paying cash. If I go through the toll at a reasonable speed, and my transponder is paid up, a green light says, “Thank you.”

It makes me so cheerful!

In fact, it makes me happier than hearing a human being say the same thing. Why could that be?

Continue reading

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?