Category Archives: Freethought

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.

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Can You Find God on the Enlightenment’s Terms?

According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Most people who chose that response to the question of human origins attend church regularly. It seems safe to assume that they get some of their most important ideas about life from God speaking to them in one way or another — in answer to prayer, through passages in the Bible, an so on.

In contrast, America’s founding fathers were above all children of the Enlightenment. In the last post, we saw that Enlightenment thinkers insisted that knowledge, including answers to the great questions of life, be justified in ways that are, in principle, accessible to all. A private word from an invisible God would not qualify.

A believer might counter that an Enlightenment epistemology based on science, logic and reason is going to miss important truths that God himself communicates.

In a way, I’d say the believers are right. If I were to have a vision in which the Christian God appeared to me personally and said, “I exist. Worship me,” I would be more inclined to believe that my brain chemistry was doing something strange, than to believe that God had truly appeared to me. After all, people of other faiths that contradict Christianity also have visions of their gods. Evidently visions are not reliable sources of truth, which was exactly the Enlightenment’s point.

However, that does not mean someone like me is beyond God’s reach. If God exists and is interested in a relationship with all mankind, including freethinkers, he could reveal himself in ways that are, in principle, accessible to all.

In fact, believers say he has done exactly that. Google a question like “How do we know the Bible is true?” and you will find reasons like these, summarized from ChristianAnswers.net:

  • The Bible contains many fulfilled prophecies.
  • The Bible is more historically accurate than other texts of the period.
  • The Bible makes correct scientific claims that were ahead of its time.
  • The Bible has a uniquely harmonious message event though it was written by many men over hundreds of years.
  • The Bible has had a unique effect on people who have believe it.

All of these reasons can be evaluated by Enlightenment standards. For example, anyone can, in principle, determine whether a given prophecy was made ahead of its alleged fulfillment, was specific enough to be remarkable, and was actually fulfilled. Even the last reason, which seems private and personal, can be tested by asking, “Do Bible-believers live uniquely righteous lives?”

The ultraconservative, creationist website, Answers in Genesis, is right in line with the Enlightenment as they say, “When asked how they know that the Bible is true, some Christians have answered, ‘We know the Bible is true by faith.’ While that answer may sound pious, it is not very logical, nor is it a correct application of Scripture. … A person doesn’t really know something just by believing it. He simply believes it. So the response is essentially, ‘We believe because we believe.’ While it is true that we believe, this answer is totally irrelevant to the question being asked. It is a non-answer. Such a response is not acceptable for a person who is a follower of Christ.” They go on to give their own reason for believing the Bible is true, based on pure logic.

Perhaps the folks at ChristianAnswers.net and Answers in Genesis are only trying to appeal to the unconverted in ways they would understand, but I give them more credit than that. I think they truly believe their faith is grounded in evidence. That’s certainly what I thought about my faith in my evangelical days.

So my response to a Christian who asks, “Aren’t you cutting yourself off from God speaking to you?” is, “Isn’t God able to speak through evidence?” Most Christians would agree that he is, and then we can have a conversation about the evidence … on the Enlightenment’s terms.

Is the Enlightenment a Moral Free-For-All?

As a Christian, I was always suspicious of the Enlightenment. I associated it with the idea that “man is the measure of all things” and a rejection of God.

If man is the measure of all things, we must be in a moral free-for-all, right? Why should your moral ideas take primacy over mine?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the wonderful Plato At the Googleplex, recently wrote a review of a book by Matthew Crawford in which she sets the record straight.

[Crawford] believes that Enlightenment thinkers, in rejecting the old sources of authority, left every person with nothing to resort to but his particular point of view, muddling through both the “is” and the “ought” all on his own.

Such an extreme warping of Enlightenment ideas about knowledge is a bit like saying that the Catholic Church has just got to stop pushing its radical atheist agenda on us. The last thing the Enlightenment aimed to do was overthrow the very idea of intellectual and moral authorities. Rather, it was about insisting that any authority must be established by arguments that can be evaluated by others exercising their cognitive capacities—the antithesis of subjectivism.

Lately, the project of using Enlightenment ideas to derive “ought” from “is” has gotten a boost from books such as Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc. They are in line with Goldstein’s characterization of Enlightenment thought:

[For Enlightenment thinkers] only certain kinds of justification for beliefs would be countenanced—namely those that were, in principle, accessible to all humans relying only on our shared cognitive capacities. Insisting on this standard was the Enlightenment’s revolution. There could be no privileged knowers who appealed to special sources of knowledge—available to them by way of heavenly revelation, or authoritative status, or intimations to which their group was privy.

How about you? Can you justify your ethical convictions with reasoning and evidence that are available to all? Or do you feel that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” and morality can only come from God?

Next time: What if an Enlightenment thinker were to be struck by an apparent divine revelation? Should he believe it?

A Chess Player’s Truth-Loving Test

We all like to win. Nowhere is this more true than in competitive games and sports. Back in the day, I used to play competitive chess, representing my employer in an inter-company league in the Hartford, Connecticut area.

People who don’t play chess sometimes picture a game where both players sit immobile, each thinking it’s the other’s turn to play, until both fall asleep.

In reality, tournament chess is an incredibly suspenseful, sustained, high-pressure contest. We played with chess clocks set so each player had to make 40 moves in 90 minutes on his own clock. You’d think a three-hour combined time limit would make for a leisurely game, but I assure you it was very tense. One or both players usually got into time trouble by the end, having to make, say, 10 moves in his final two minutes. That was after spending nearly three hours thinking as hard as he could, searching for the best plan, wondering what his opponent is planning, worrying about making a blunder and wanting to score a point for his team.

After all that effort and tension, a victory felt really good. We recorded our moves as we played and I would savor a victory by replaying it at home. (Not that I needed the written record; with that much thinking invested, it was easy to remember every move.)

In my early days, I cared very much about winning but as my game improved I cared about something else even more, namely whether the game was beautiful. If I played my best, but lost, I would derive true enjoyment from a game that was as beautiful as I knew how to make it.

Conversely, if I won only because my opponent blundered, the victory would be empty.

There were some games that were more of an honor to lose than other games were to win.

Chess is very much like a debate. One player may think, “My King is safe. I can embark on a queenside attack.” The other player is thinking, “I’ll break through to his King before his queenside attack has done significant damage.” Or maybe the second player doesn’t see the attack coming and will soon be shown the error of his ways. The game is all about discovering whether your ideas are sound.

A player who loves chess even more than he loves winning will enjoy a game where his errors are refuted even more than a game he wins because of his opponent’s mistake.

So here is my Chess Player’s Truth-Loving Test for all debates, whether or not they occur on a chessboard.

A person loves the truth when he (or she) is happier to hear a beautiful refutation of his errors than to win an argument against a weak opponent.

Other truth-loving tests in this series:

Spirituality: A Product of the Body

“Body am I, and soul”–thus speaks the child….

But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.  — Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book 1.

A day after reading what Zarathustra spoke, I saw an article in The Atlantic called The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving. To quote the first few paragraphs:

In the early 1990s, a quiet man named João quit his job running the human-resources department of an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling french fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious—thin and crisp and golden. Even more enticing, João often served them up for free. All you had to do was ask, and he’d scoop some into a box, no charge. What money he did take in, he frequently gave away to children begging in the street or used to buy them sweets. Day after day, he came home to his wife and son without a single real in his pocket.

In his previous life, João—a chubby man with pointy ears and arched black eyebrows—had been stern and serious, prone to squirreling money away. But after suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, he wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” And nothing made him happier than giving. To those who didn’t know him well, he must have seemed like the embodiment of selflessness—the Saint Francis of Rio de Janeiro.

He sounds like a very spiritual person, doesn’t he? If anything would indicate that we are animated by more than just chemistry, it is the generosity and love that this man radiated.

But then the article continues,

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. … [He] became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy.

It turns out that one area of our brain gives us a dopamine rush when we do something generous, but another area regulates that impulse so we don’t go broke. João’s stroke knocked out that second area, so his generosity went untempered.

Isn’t it interesting that a purely physical change to the brain can produce such a supposedly spiritual result?

Maybe Zarathustra was right!

Same-Sex Marriage vs Tradition

In the last post, we heard from from John Trandem, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. If we were to legitimize same-sex marriage, he said, “how would we .. be able to exclude [marriage between] two men and two women or three men or three women…?”

Marriage between one man and one woman, he pointed out, has two things going for it that these other variations do not: biology and tradition.

The last post was about biology. Now let’s talk about tradition.

We can presume that when conservatives in America cite “tradition” they mean Judeo-Christian, or biblical, tradition. This is the tradition on which conservatives like to say our counry was founded. Okay, then.

Like the argument from biology, the argument from biblical tradition has a nasty way of curling back to bite those who trot it out.

For starters, biblical tradition is firmly rooted in polygamy. The Bible mentions two wives of Moses. Abraham had an unkown number of concubines (second-class wives) in addition to his wife, Sarah. I won’t mention Solomon, who had 700 wives, because the Bible does say that kings should not get carried away like that. His father, king David, was a monk by comparison, having only 7 wives, plus maybe a couple of others that are in dispute.

But what could be greater evidence of the polygamous root of Judeo-Christian tradition than the fact that the very 12 tribes of Israel descend from Jacob’s four wives?

The predominantly Mormon state of Utah was not allowed to join the United States until it agreed to outlaw polygamy. Where were God’s culture warriors when this abridgement of biblical norms was being foisted on patriotic Americans?

In addition to wives and concubines, Hebrew men were free to have sex with their slaves. In the chapter of the Bible that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, we find God’s regulations for sex slavery. A man could sell his daughter to a fellow Hebrew, who was then under obligation to continue to have sex with her (presumably so she could have the honor of bearing children) even as he married additional women. Alternatively, he could sell her back if she did not “satisfy him” or he could give her to one of his sons if he chose.

Now there’s a nice family value: Have sex with your servant-girl and then give her to your son for more of the same.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife gave him a hard time for fathering a child by his housekeeper, where was the outcry from conservatives? (The outcry against his wife, I mean.) Why didn’t traditionalists support Arnold as he upheld the proud biblical tradition of impregnating one’s servants? He was even a Republican, for cryin’ out loud! It’s shameful how people won’t stand up for the Bible.

No study of the wondrous variety of marriage arrangements in the Good Book would be complete without mention of the final, glorious act of Moses, the great Law-Giver of Judeo-Christian tradition. This was to direct the distribution of 32,000 virgin war-captives to his soldiers and sundry others. As recorded in Numbers 31, these girls were parceled out exactly like the cattle that were also taken as “plunder and spoils” of war. It is stated at least 4 times in this chapter that Moses did all this in accordance with God’s direct command (verses 25, 31, 41, and 47).

Numbers 31 does not tell us whether any of the virgins got to update their Facebook status from “plunder” to “wife.” We can only hope. If they did, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gave God’s instructions for how the Hebrew men were to arrange the marriage — and terminate it at will if the girl whose parents and brothers had been slaughtered by her new husband’s army does not manage to “please him” sufficiently.

We have all been horrified by ISIS’ enslavement and plunder of women in recent months, or Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and marrying them off to their soldiers. Why won’t advocates of “traditional marriage” speak up and tell the rest of us that ISIS and Boko Haram are acting exactly as God commanded in the Bible?

Never mind; I know the answer to that one. It’s because it’s bad when Muslims do it, but God’s righteous judgment when those in our spiritual tradition do the same thing.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews were subject to Rome and were in no position to wage war and get wives by capturing them. However, polygamy was still practiced among both Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was pagan Rome that finally outlawed the practice.

So maybe it is Roman tradition that opponents of same-sex marriage really want? Probably not.

Maybe tradition is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we’re better off thinking for ourselves.

Same-Sex Marriage vs Biology

What do you think of this exchange between NPR host David Greene and John Trandem, who owns an auto body shop in North Dakota?

TRANDEM: I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not you legalize same-sex marriage. It’s a matter of whether or not you remove the definition of marriage. You know, if marriage is defined as an institution involving one man and one woman, that’s what it is. If you want to create a union with a man and you’re a man, that’s not marriage. And under the guise of equality, if we were to … amend the definition of marriage to include one man and one man, how would we logically and rationally be able to exclude two men and two women or three men or three women if equality is the endgame?

GREENE: Three men and three women, like three people getting married or…

TRANDEM: I’d say six people getting – well, it doesn’t matter. … The magic behind the number two [man and woman] is biology – which we’re getting rid of that – and tradition. And we’re getting rid of that.

Mr. Trandem is very articulate, isn’t he? If you listen to the audio version, you’ll also discover that he’s an earnest, decent-sounding man. But I think he might be surprised at what can unfold once arguments from “biology” and “tradition” are opened.

In this post, I’ll consider the “biology” argument. The plea to tradition will be the subject of the next post.

The argument from biology, as I’ve usually heard it stated, is not that homosexual behavior is unknown elsewhere in the animal kingdom. It does occur, although bisexuality would better describe what goes on in the vast majority of cases.

Rather, the argument from biology centers on the fact that a homosexual marriage cannot produce children. That alone, the argument goes, should be enough to indicate that such marriages are unnatural and wrong.

Really? Do those who make such arguments say that a fertile man ought not marry an infertile woman? Or that two infertile people should never marry? Of course they don’t. They know that companionship, pleasure and fidelity are justification enough for both sex and marriage. Homosexual couples have all of those.

“But at least sex in a barren heterosexual marriage looks like sex in a fertile one,” they say. “At least they are going through the same motions.”

Are the motions what’s important? If we’re making an argument from biology, isn’t the actual biology what’s important? And isn’t the actual biological result in both cases (homosexual marriage and childless heterosexual marriage) the same?

The argument from biology also turns on those who use it in a way that might strike closer to home. If we want an institution of marriage that favors reproductive success, then, like so many of our mammal cousins, we should push for marriage between one dominant male and several females, leaving the other males out in the cold.

An alpha wolf might look at our society and sneer, “Those awful humans. They let anyone mate! Even the weak get to have children. It just ain’t natural! And it’s not good for the species, either.”

In short, the argument from biology will take its aherents where they don’t want to go. Applied consistently, it will force them to prohibit some heterosexual marriages, and maybe even call the whole idea of monogamy into question.

 

Next time: the argument from tradition.