About that so-called “hard problem” of consciousness

When on the path to recovery from traditional metaphysical modes of thought (e.g. the traditional monotheisms), we are sometimes tempted to interpret scientific puzzles as in principle uncloseable gaps. Those gaps then serve as a foot in the door for recovering certain metaphysical notions. But the empiricist mindset involves staying open-minded about such puzzles (rather than positing a god of the gaps, for instance).

There are certain puzzles which do appear to be unsolveable. Why is there something rather than nothing? What preceded the Big Bang? I know of no humanist / atheist / skeptic / freethinker who pretends to know the answers to these questions. At most, we are tempted to suggest there is something wrong with the question (and attempting to undermine the presuppositions of a question is very different from pretending to have an answer to it). I myself confess to being drawn to this approach. Our explanations eventually reach a terminus, and I see no reason to seek a terminus beyond the terminus, so to speak. There just is something–namely, at the very least, the universe we inhabit. To ask why is to demand an account that could never be provided, because it would require “stepping back” (somehow) from everything we know and are to evaluatethat with some ‘objective’ criterion that is itself somehow beyond scrutiny. It boggles the mind. Let us say, at the very least, that if we can’t even in principle speak intelligibly about something, we should probably shut up about it (to paraphrase Wittgenstein).

The “gap” I’m interested in here is the so-called “problem” of consciousness. There’s been a dramatic rise in interest in what’s called the “hard problem” of consciousness in philosophy within the past few decades, in large part due to the work of people like David Chalmers and Frank Jackson. Their suggestion, as I understand it, is that it is logically conceivable that there be beings in all respects identical to human beings (with respect to biological and neurological function in particular) who are nevertheless devoid of consciousness (“zombies” in the philosophical sense). Consciousness, on this view, is the “what it is like” of being a sentient organism. “I am conscious” is roughly equivalent to “there’s something it is like to be me”.

So the suggestion some philosophers have explored is whether or not consciousness (thusly understood) “fits” with a naturalistic and materialistic picture of the world. Some have argued that it does not. David Chalmers, for example, though he is a naturalist and an empiricist, thinks we need to revive some kind of “property dualism” and view consciousness as a kind of counterpart to matter, that pervades the universe, and that manifests itself most strongly in organisms like human beings. Though Chalmers is a naturalist, non-naturalists have jumped on the “hard problem of consciousness” bandwagon and supposed that, because consciousness can’t be “explained”, this means human beings (or at least sentient beings) are special. The door then opens to metaphysical speculation, and rejiggered conceptions of immortal souls aren’t far behind. I watched a recent debate between evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams on the question of human origins, and Williams made it quite clear that he thinks consciousness is awful special. … … Who knows where that leads him.

But if we acknowledge that explanation comes to an end somewhere. That we must content ourselves with certain ‘brute facts’. Then our understanding of all phenomena is grounded in fundamental posits that themselves remain “unexplained”–they are taken for granted. Why do electrons and protons interact the way they do? They just do. Why do neutrons not carry a charge? They just don’t. Perhaps an account of the behavior and properties of atomic particles can be provided. But then that new account will take for granted certain other “givens” (quarks?) of what exists in the universe and how it behaves.

So also with consciousness. Our nervous systems perform a variety of different functions and consciousness seems to emerge as a kind of informational synchronization between different parts of the brain. I see something, I can make a verbal report about it. When we sleep, when we have dissociative identity disorder, when we’re put in a sensory deprivation tank, when we’re on drugs… consciousness unravels. No doubt there’s a more complex story to be told about how exactly consciousness works, but it’s an empirical problem–a scientific problem (not a philosophical problem)–to provide us with the details. Simple observation of the ways in which consciousness emerges (in child development, over the course of evolution, when we come out of a deep sleep) and how it disintegrates (in all the ways it can) tells us pretty much all we need to know, all we can know about what consciousness is. There is no further problem of consciousness. To keep asking “but why?” isn’t profound. It’s infantile.

That last claim is a bit strong. But consider, what would satisfy these would-be students of consciousness? What does it even mean to “explain” consciousness? If you’re expecting to be able to inhabit the first-person perspective of another person on the basis of their third-person reports, aren’t you expecting a bit much? The deficiency is not in their reports. It’s in your imaginative capabilities.

So let’s stop pretending that science cannot “explain consciousness”. It’s working on what there is to explain (for example, how the brain synchronizes information processed via different input channels). And, with respect to the “hard problem”… well, there’s nothing to explain.

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Spirituality without religion?

When I was religious, I thought ill of the expression “I’m spiritual but not religious”. It seemed to me a wishful way of thinking you could have personal and social transformation without concrete material institutions. The point of the Christian Church, I thought, was to keep Christian spirituality grounded in real life. And I still think there’s something to that insight. But I’m not a big fan of the Church anymore, as you already know. The religious institution that is the Christian Church perpetuates the notion, the impression, of special revelation. The Catholic Church, for instance, postures as a moral authority, in spite of its chronic moral failings.

But enough of religion. What of spirituality? If by “spirituality” one means something having to do with occult spirits, forces, or whatever, no naturalist or humanist worth her salt can be on board. But there’s a less metaphysical notion of spirituality that I think is well worth embracing.

Consider human acquisitiveness. We hunger for status, and we purchase items we take to confer status. Nice clothes, cars, furniture, etc. Or, if we can’t afford to purchase those items, we envy those who can. But research shows, as the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions have always said, that such purchased items do very little in terms of bringing long-term joy into our lives. What does bring joy is human connectedness (friendships, family) and simple material security: having a roof over your head, clothes to keep you warm, and food in your belly. Meaningful work, some leisure, some creativity, and a measure of physical ability all add to these fundamentals. This is the stuff of a happy human life.

But becoming the kind of person who is oriented towards these things, rather than towards the trinkets of materialist culture, is hard work. It takes focus. And it takes social support. This is the stuff of spirituality (and of progressive politics). Finding contentment in relationships. Becoming a skilled, empathetic and imaginative conversationalist. Steering clear of materialistic desire.

There are simple steps one can take to move in this direction. It is the direction of greater happiness.

Obviously, our human cultures need institutions to encourage us to take on the challenge of genuine happiness. But I don’t think we need anything like a unified religion. We don’t need a humanist Pope. We need what we already have: blogs, Facebook, YouTube. Books, libraries, honest conversations. The contagiousness of simplicity, of joy, of activity, and activism. The infrastructure is already in place. We need to use it.

So I’m not religious, but I want to be spiritual. I want to work on my mind–on my beliefs, on my desires–and find unity of mind, unity of purpose, unity of will.

Cue “Imagine”.

Democracy and atheism: two peas in a pod

The problem with traditional religion, on my view, is its epistemology. (As I’ve said before, here, here, and here.)

The legitimacy of a claim comes not from its being grounded in Scripture, the will of God, or whatever, but from being grounded in experience. Of course, what it means for a claim to be ‘grounded in experience’ is a matter of some debate. But debates about what counts as expertise in what field shouldn’t obscure the fundamental fact that traditional theism has been discredited, and with it, any claim to authority over any area of life. Knowledge about how the world works beyond the sphere of human existence can be gained only by running careful experiments on that world, over and over again, and scrutinizing the results from every imaginable angle. That’s what the physical sciences aspire to do. And knowledge about how to live life can be gained only through experiments in living. The results of these experiments are compiled in the various human sciences, and in the writings of reflective individuals from all walks of life, the world over.

This empiricist epistemology, in my opinion, has radical political implications. Think of how natural it is for a hierarchical religion predicated on ‘special revelation’ from God to (some) humans to fit into a hierarchical political structure. The position of the people at the top, in such a system, is a function of their closeness to God. If you have a special line to God and others don’t, after all, why not use it to run the world? And if you already are running the world, what better way to justify it than by claiming God’s seal of approval?

But if you reject special revelation, you reject with it the idea that religious people have some sort of special insight into how to create good or just laws. It turns out they’re just people too. As far as I can tell then, atheism fits hand in hand with some kind of democratic ideal. This isn’t to say that everyone is equally intelligent, or has the same insight into life or economics, or whatever. But it is to say that no one has any occult knowledge handed down to them from God. That doesn’t level the field completely. But if you’re coming from a theocracy, it goes a long way in that direction.

More to the point, it empowers ordinary citizens to demand justification for whatever laws get passed. Lawmakers can’t hide behind an aura of ontological superiority, or behind their ‘God said so’s.

There are, I will readily concede, many other ways in which lawmakers can maintain unfair and unequal power structures without appealing to God. But taking God off the table has the virtue of bringing the justifications of lawmakers into the sphere of verifiability and falsifiability. That is all I mean to emphasize.

This is, I think, part of why the U.S. Republican presidential candidates this year have made a big deal about traditional religion. They can’t make the case against gay marriage or against global warming (or against whatever else they’re against) from science or from practical wisdom. And so instead they engage in all sorts of religious posturing, claiming God’s blessing on “traditional” heterosexual marriage, on the Earth (because, you know, God promised Noah he would never flood it again), and so on. And they claim that they’re being persecuted–that there’s a “war on religion”.

Well there is no “war on religion” in the U.S. But I for one think there should be. (When I say “war”, I’m speaking metaphorically, for the record–as in ‘war of ideas’.) The private (‘revealed’) reasons behind conservative religious policies must give way to public reasons, available for all to scrutinize. This is a profoundly atheistic (or, if you prefer, “secular”) perspective. It is also fundamental to achieving our democratic ideals in this multi-faith, multi-cultural world.

Guilt is useless

In traditional moral (and religious) systems, notions of guilt, shame, and what one ‘deserves’ figure prominently. And there’s no question that our psychological constitution allows such notions to get a hold of us, so to speak. But what I want to suggest is that a humanist moral system must view such notions as unnecessary. Even harmful.

What underlies guilt, shame, and practices of retributive punishment is the idea of what one deserves. In philosophical circles, we call this “desert”. (It’s pronounced like “dessert”, not like what the Sahara is.) But it turns out the notion of desert is really problematic. One of the reasons it’s problematic is because we’re terrible at allocating it. When I play cards with my in-laws, for example, I’m very quick to accept responsibility for my victories, and very slow to accept responsibility for my losses. I attribute my victories to skill–to ME–and my losses to bad luck. I don’t do this consciously mind you. I just feel great about myself when I win (as opposed to thanking my metaphorical lucky stars).

It turns out it’s not just me, and it’s not just cards. Some studies have shown (if my memory serves me right) that middle and upper-class individuals are very likely to attribute their successes in life to talent–to personal skill and hard work. Whereas individuals from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to attribute their successes to social support (their parents, their friends, their scholarships, etc.). I can only hypothesize that this is because the delusion of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is harder to sustain when it’s so obviously false. But in the right kind of environment, your brain gets away with making you feel great about yourself about matters of luck.

Think about it: you did not make yourself. You did not choose your personality, your parents, your siblings, your social class, your color, your sexual orientation, your nationality, or any of the things that have provided the parameters for your life. More importantly, you didn’t even choose to learn the lessons you first learned. The experiences which set you off on the course you’ve embarked on were essentially made for you by your environment. You’re a cognitively complex animal, of course, and so now you’re making your own decisions. But both the software you’re using to make those decisions and the hardware that’s running the whole thing are ultimately the product of forces that pre-exist you. Even your skill is ultimately a matter of luck.

It’s easy to let this line of reasoning overwhelm you. But it shouldn’t. You are who you are, even if in some sense you are “just” the product of a particular human culture. Falling back on traditional notions of an immaterial “soul” or of “free will” won’t help (although I should note that our neural flexibility grants us a pretty radical degree of freedom–we can recreate ourselves at will). We should rather embrace the role of luck in making us all who we are.

Luck tends to undermine desert. Maybe there’s a way to reconcile them. I’m not sure. But I think the pervasiveness of luck means, at the very least, taking the notion of desert with a grain of salt. Concretely what this means is that we should stop feeling so much better than people who don’t have our station in life (and maybe work for a less stratified social order). We don’t deserve our station. Perhaps we are witty, talented, or whatever. There’s no point in denying it (humility is overrated). It’s just important to remember that we did not ultimately make ourselves witty, talented, or whatever. Likewise, the poor, the addicted, the crazies of the world–they did not make themselves who they are. They are in some sense–as we all are–victims of fortune. Perhaps a little compassion is called for (not in the sense of being “deserved” of course, but just in the sense of making the world more livable).

Just as we should be compassionate to others who have not had our fortune, we should give ourselves a break. Instead of beating ourselves up emotionally (through guilt or shame) when we fall short of whatever standards we’ve been holding ourselves to, we should acknowledge that we are imperfect animals. If we are not yet who we want to be, it is not shame or guilt that will get us there. There are simple steps one can take to reprogram oneself in the desired direction without all the self-hatred.

Consider finally how we should approach having hurt someone. When I do something, whether intentionally or unintentionally (usually it’s the latter), to hurt someone, and that hurt becomes apparent to me, I apologize. The same psychological tendencies that make us trade in notions of desert and guilt and shame will tend to make us shy away from admitting wrongdoing. Desert makes us cling to ego. But as a humanist trying to live shamelessly, I don’t have to cling to my self-image (which is of course not say that I don’t sometimes do that). I can acknowledge that I am still a work in progress. And that frees me up to say “I hurt you, I dropped the ball, I’m sorry.”

On this point, humanist insight coincides with the best of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions. The practical point is just that clinging to one’s ego has a tendency to hold one back–to make us engage in self-justification. We justify ourselves to protect ourselves from guilt and shame. But guilt and shame presuppose that we ‘deserve’ bad things when we do bad things, and that we ‘deserve’ good things when we do good things. I don’t deny that we should socially reward pro-social behavior and disincentivize antisocial behavior. What I deny is that the soul-crushing emotions that internalize those social incentives should be nurtured. We can and we should outgrow them.

Is life meaningless?

The question “is life meaningless?” masquerades as a profound question. But as formulated it is not. It is simply misleading. Consider the analogous “is there truth?” or “is the truth out there?” Both questions sound like they’re in principle answerable with a simple “yes” or “no”. But I want to suggest that both are bad questions.

The truth, for starters, is not ‘out there’. The world is ‘out there’. Truth is a property of sentences. Sentences are parts of language, and language is a product of human activity. Our descriptions of the world can be more or less truthful. And perhaps when we’re looking for information about an uncharted part of the world or of human experience, the fact of the world’s being ‘out there’ tempts us to talk of “the truth” being ‘out there’. Such talk may well be harmless in most circumstances. But taking seriously the fact that language is a function of human engagement with the world requires that, in our more philosophical moments, we refrain from the useful fiction of a disembodied ‘truth’ floating outside the realm of human affairs. Nature does not speak to us in sentences that can be true or false. Nature just is. “Is there truth?” Bad question. “Can human beings work towards truthful accounts of the world and of themselves?” Yes.

Similarly, the question “is life meaningless?” is a bad question. Meaning, like truth, doesn’t float ‘out there’, beyond the realm of human experience. Meaning is a human achievement. What this means is that a particular individual’s life can be meaningless, or it can be meaningful. For most of us, there’s going to be a bit of both. But meaning is not and cannot be something which comes to us merely from outside of ourselves. We find meaning–we make meaning–when we are engaged in pursuits we experience as life-giving.

I find meaning in my life through my various roles. I’m a father, a husband, a student, a philosopher. And occasionally a guitarist, and a capoeirista. I find meaning through activities I enjoy–hiking, slacklining, dancing, reading, and so on. And I find meaning in friendship. Have I experienced meaninglessness? Yes. I think most reflective adults have. But the way you get back on the horse isn’t by waiting for the world to foist meaning onto you. You get back on the horse by… getting back on the horse. By getting out and living. Meaningfulness, like happiness, is a byproduct of a certain kind of living. I suppose you could say that life is meaningless, insofar as meaning is not ‘out there’. But that would be to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life. Which is false. Better then to reject the presuppositions of the question.

Life is what you make it.

What I believe

I wrote what follows (minus a few edits) shortly after my ‘deconversion’ (which happened in 2009, if I’m remembering right). Having reread it, I think it still captures my basic outlook. The fact that I felt the need to comment on the person of Jesus reflects where I was coming from, but since I don’t think humanists should shy away from appropriating what’s of value in the world’s religious traditions, I think those reflections are still valuable.

THE UNIVERSE

The universe as we know it began some 15 billion years ago in a ‘big bang’. As far as I can tell, we have no way of knowing what or who (if anything) came ‘before’. Nevertheless, the fabric of reality (in our corner of the cosmos at least) is dynamic. While big rocks and monstrous suns collide and spin, that peculiar phenomenon we identify as biological life is possible under certain conditions because of the effervescence of all things at the quantum level. Fortuitous conditions (from our perspective) have obtained on the planet we call Earth for some time, and biological life has evolved here as a result. Quantum indeterminacy makes possible genetic mutation, which drives massive biological multiplication, which runs into ecological limits, which results in the ‘natural selection’ of organisms optimally suited to their local environments. This push and pull of life, which has been both beautiful and bloody from the get-go, has produced the world we know today and human life. If there is some god(dess?) behind it all, she, he or it is indiscernible apart from these dynamic processes that have brought us into existence. We can be struck by the fact that there is something rather than nothing, and that the something that there is is what it is, but I don’t think we can say much more than that. In a sense, there is a creative force which has brought everything into being, but since that creative force is woven into the fabric of the universe, it seems overeager to separate ‘Creator’ from ‘Creation’. Life is a gift, to be sure. It is a good gift to some, a very bad gift to others. I’m not sure if there’s any value in trying to average those out and make a judgment about whether the cosmos as a whole is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think the most we can say is that it is good for some of us and bad for others (or maybe partially good and partially bad for everyone whose is aware enough to look around).

HUMAN BEINGS

As biologically evolved beings, we have inherited the neural complexity and structure of our species’ long history. It has made us into social beings who get along better when we treat each other well. To the extent that we are ‘made for’ life together, we do our best to live in relative harmony. Human beings who violate societal harmony by harming others or living selfishly are rightly judged to be ‘bad’ human beings–they make life together more difficult. That being said, all of us have drives and desires that are at least sometimes difficult to reconcile with life together. These selfish desires can pull us apart and cause us to harm others. Call it ‘original sin’ or what you will, there seems to be an unavoidable struggle that comes with being the kinds of beings we are. Good human lives are those that find ways of harmonizing selfish drives with the conditions of common life (which is what the Golden Rule seems to be getting at). We do not have non-material ‘souls’, and we do not in any way survive the deaths of our bodies–we are fundamentally mortal. There is no ‘salvation’ from this condition, though there are certainly better and worse ways of being what we are, and it is certainly appropriate to talk about being saved from our more harmful desires and harmful existential outlooks. (Although we should resist the self-aggrandizing attribution of that salvation to God. Good luck and other people typically deserve the credit.)

MEANINGS OF LIFE

There is no predetermined or given ‘meaning’ to human life. Our biological nature and cultural conditioning of course means that some things will be good for us and others bad, but a large part of a responsible human life involves choosing a calling for ourselves–finding a niche for ourselves in the world. This is not given to us from on high, but is rather something we choose in light of our skills and strengths, and in light of our socio-cultural and economic environments. The world is what we make it (so let’s be creative!!). Because human beings have limited foresight, and because we tend to be selfish, we have created economic and cultural systems that have been devastatingly harmful to fellow human beings and other animals. As we become aware of these harms, we realize that we are responsible for rectifying them as much as is possible. We cannot consistently devalue the lives of others and yet claim to value our own lives and the lives of the ones we love. Therefore we seek to be consistent valuers of life, and of human and sentient life in particular.

HAPPINESS

We find life to be worth living only under certain conditions. Not having to constantly struggle for food, shelter and security is of course one of the most basic conditions. Others include being surrounded by beauty, seeking (and finding!) truth, having friends, having meaningful work and so on. Most of what we do aims at making us happy, and this is all well and good, so long as we remember that we’re all in this together, and that we therefore have a stake in each other’s flourishing. One of the most important dimensions of happiness is contentment. Particularly in the consumeristic culture we’ve created, we sometimes believe that stuff buys us happiness, but this is often untrue. Both because things only have relative and relational value and because we value what we create more than what we buy, contentment can’t be bought. If we want to flourish, be happy, be content then, we need to stop clinging to things. In fact, the best kind of ‘wealth’ is actually found in fulfilling relationships of all kinds (rather than things). Solid friendships are essential to a good human life, as is a properly functioning and dependable social order (it can be difficult or impossible to flourish under excessively oppressive political regimes). Sex is deeply intimate and pleasurable and as such should be seen as an important ingredient in a good human life (though it isn’t strictly necessary of course, and other things might be judged more important). Because of the strength of human sexual energies, we of course have to be careful with how we handle sex. Monogamous marriage (or partnerships more broadly) are one (but not the only) way in which this can be done responsibly. Contemporary advances in biological knowledge (especially as embedded in birth control technologies) should be seen as massively helpful in limiting the possible harmful side effects of sex. Sexual taboos impede self-knowledge and responsible decision making. Having children is always a gamble, but many find it deeply rewarding. It can also cause a lot of harm and suffering. The most fundamental point to be made about human happiness is that happiness doesn’t just ‘happen’. We must become certain kinds of people in order to enjoy life. Happiness takes work and self-discipline. Being open-minded, slow to anger, quick to apologize, eager for knowledge, willing to laugh… all of these are skills that make us both enjoyable to be around and happier (which is part of why it is important to be educated about these things and to educate others about them).

JESUS

On some accounts of his life (and there are many conflicting accounts, both ancient and contemporary), Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary human being. He was profoundly Jewish and believed the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations. He also was convinced that the Jewish nation as a whole was, in his time, being unfaithful to its calling. He therefore prophesied, in a spirit similar to that of John the Baptizer, that Israel was on a broad path to destruction. If Israelites continued to be unfaithful, the pagan oppressors they decried would trample their holy city and destroy their temple. Israel’s unfaithfulness, on Jesus’ view, consisted in mistreatment of the poor, monopoly of the means of divine grace, and a refusal to take seriously the radicalness of YHWH’s commands. He therefore taught compassion, advocated and practiced confrontational non-violence, and commanded his disciples to love their enemies. He was first and foremost a political resistor and was murdered by the state and by Jewish leaders as such. He also predicted his vindication using heavily charged and ambiguous language drawn from the prophets (Daniel in particular), speaking about a ‘coming of the son of man’. It seems likely that he associated the destruction of the temple with this apocalyptic vision, since it would entail the end of Jewish life as they all knew it. He may also have believed in a final resurrection and made claims about his own resurrection, but the narrative cultural and mythological overlay makes it hard to get at the ‘historical’ Jesus, especially in this regard. In any case, Jesus became an iconic and inspirational figure for many (much like Socrates, who likewise never wrote a single word and who was likewise unjustly murdered by the state for confronting the political powers), and his disciples, on top of spreading some of his teachings, also told increasingly metaphysical stories about his significance. The metaphysical stories (about his being ‘God’, his Spirit recreating the world and defeating ‘Death’, and his so-called ‘Second Coming’) are false, as best we can tell. His political example remains compelling, primarily insofar as he refused to cling to life itself in his devotion to a greater good.

RELIGION

I believe the best of all cultural and religious (or non-religious) traditions get at these basic human truths. Otherwise, claims about God or gods, or about the ‘ultimate nature of reality’ overreach our cognitive limitations. There is much that we cannot now (and probably ever) know–or at least, that’s what the evidence strongly suggests, as far as I can tell. An important part of life is coming to terms with all that we’ll never know. One of the central problems of religious claims is that they are dogmatic–there is no room for reasoned disagreement. While various scientific projects and theories are often flawed, incomplete and imperfect, they have the virtue of being, at least in principle, open and revisable. And this is by far the best way of developing an outlook on the world. Claims about what has been ‘revealed’ generally create a canon of ‘Truth’ handed down ‘once and for all’. Revealingly, much of what religious believers have claimed is true seems, from our present perspective, to be false (e.g. the age of the Earth and the universe, the position of the Earth, the existence of souls, spirits, demons, the ‘wrongness’ and ‘perversion’ of homosexuality, etc.). This is a strong reason to mistrust any and all claims about purportedly ‘revealed’ truth. Though there is much to be valued in religious practice (e.g. meditative exercises, the social cohesion it fosters, the altruistic behavior it sometimes commends), in a lot of ways it can be a distraction from present life, especially insofar as it posits an eternal ‘heaven’ or a future ‘kingdom of God’ where every tear will be wiped from our eyes. We have no good positive reason to entertain these hopes, and many good reasons not to. There’s no heaven, no hell–it’s just us. So let’s make the best of this finite, imperfect, sometimes painful, sometimes blissful human existence, and be content with that.

Where morality comes from

I’m sometimes criticized for picking philosophical fights with the wrong kind of religion. I’ll say something unqualified along the lines of “religion is bad”, and I’m reprimanded for equating religion with its worst elements. No doubt there is something to that critique. Christianity is not monolithic. Neither is Islam. And Judaism certainly isn’t. And yet I want to insist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with religion as such. What gives?

What’s wrong with religion is its epistemology–where it says knowledge comes from. Traditional theism (and I’m thinking here, as elsewhere, of the Abrahamic religions) is based, if it is based on anything, on the assumption that God gives us knowledge. Whether it’s through the Bible or the Koran, through a certain tradition, through mystical inspiration, or whatever. The fundamental point is that God reveals truth to us.

Most empirically-minded folk have realized that religion cannot give us scientific truth about the world. The cosmology and biology of the Bible, for instance, are false. Only fundamentalists and other strong conservatives deny this. Nevertheless, religious moderates and liberals insist on viewing religion as a vehicle for ‘special revelation’ of moral truth. While the Bible can’t tell us about DNA, they say, it can tell us about who we are and how to live.

Exhibit A: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has repeatedly given voice to the widespread Christian belief that it is God who gives us our rights (see here).

This contrasts sharply with the humanist view that morality is a system of norms negotiated in realtime by social animals with a wide variety of internally and interpersonally conflicting desires, values, and so on. On the humanist picture, it’s just us. We’re mucking about as best we can, coming up with ideas, rules, or whatever, that minimize violence, discomfort, humiliation, and other things we don’t like, so that most social interaction can be a positive sum game (as opposed to a zero-sum game where one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss, or a negative-sum game where everybody loses). We’ve come a long way, but we’ve also got a long way to go. And the way we make progress (again, on the humanist view) isn’t by consulting a divine list of dos and don’ts, nor is it by consulting with mediums, with the ‘Holy Spirit’, or with some ‘holy’ book or other. We make progress by becoming better listeners and by engaging in actual conversations with people who are harmed by our current social arrangements and then taking those insights and using them to write our best selves into laws, customs, and culture. It’s hard work, and there’s honest debate about how accommodating it’s realistic to be, but that’s the stuff of real life.

Religion comes in–and it’s religion of all stripes, mind you–and says “God says” or “the Holy Spirit says” or “the Koran says” or whatever. And sure, it’s nice when “God says” to legalize gay marriage, or “the Koran allows” women to vote/drive/etc. But just because alleged divine revelation coincides with our best and most humane insights doesn’t mean the claim about divine revelation is any less problematic!

Perhaps a sensible person might say: “but what about religion viewed not as a receptacle of truths, but as a way of life?”

And I’ll be honest–that sounds great! Imagine if Christianity weren’t about believing the right things, but about living in certain ways–living the Golden Rule, caring for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, living simply and nonviolently… that would be great! And there are versions of Christianity that incorporate those insights. I’m told there are versions of Buddhism that aren’t about anything other than self-examination and self-knowledge (coupled with the claim that, the closer you get to know your ‘self’, the more you realize that everything you thought was you turns out not to be). So surely, religion can be a lifepath, rather than a dogmatic system.

But now it’s your turn to be honest. How many practitioners or theologians do you know who say: “our religious tradition has some insight into living–take it or leave it”? The Mennonite theologian Gordon D. Kaufman ended up saying something like that (viewing ‘God’ as the impersonal force[s] of creativity at work in the world, Jesus as an unusual ‘creative’ person, and Christians as those who found themselves drawn to Jesus for whatever reason), and most religious people thought of him as an arch-heretic. Why? Because his ‘religious’ views were fully compatible with naturalistic, atheistic humanism. Instead of replacing (partially or completely) a scientific worldview, Christian insight into living, according to Kaufman, could complement it. So Kaufman gave epistemological priority to science, rejecting everything in the Christian tradition that was incompatible with it. If all, most, or even just some religious folk thought of religion that way, I’d totally be on board. But guess what? It turns out that religious folk insist on coupling their particular tradition’s insights with additional claims, like “and everybody else got it wrong (or less right)”, “this information was revealed to us by God”, and so on. And that just reintroduces the epistemological problems all over again.

So for me it all boils down to this: where does knowledge come from? As an empiricist and a pragmatist, I say: from experience, properly scrutinized, and checked against the experience of others. This means that knowledge about the world comes from running experiments on the world with good hypotheses and a methodology that incorporates the hard-earned lessons of the history of science. It means that knowledge about how to live comes from living and talking about living with a wide variety of people (and when I say talking to people, I should note that reading about the experiences of others can be one way of coming very close to this where it’s not feasible to host a live conversation). And that’s pretty much it. I’m not aware of any other reliable sources of knowledge.

To recap: my unqualified judgment that religion is bad, unhelpful, or whatever–that it needs to be outgrown–is grounded in my observation that traditional religion has an untenable epistemology. Traditional religion views knowledge (or at least some forms of knowledge) as coming from God. This has the distinct disadvantage of making it unclear how to check that knowledge against reality, and how to correct it if it starts to be apparent that what we thought was true isn’t. Humanism doesn’t fix all our knowledge problems–we still have to do the hard work of experimenting (with our world, with our social structures), but at least it avoids the kind of epistemic dead end religion celebrates.

The proper object of respect

When two people disagree about something as radical as whether or not there is a god, respect is critical. But let’s be clear. It is people who deserve our respect. Even when they don’t deserve it, it is good of us to grant it–or failing that, to do our best to ignore them. So let us be civil with one another.

The arguments of those who disagree with us do not deserve our respect, especially if they are bad arguments, or rely on false premises. Some arguments are so bad or morally bankrupt, it would be a very bad thing to dignify those arguments with anything other than scorn. Most arguments are not so bad. But the point remains: an argument as such does not deserve respect. People do.

One simple thing that follows from this view is that while it’s probably a bad idea to mock people, I see no reason not to mock bad arguments. It’s not the only or even main thing we should do with bad arguments–presenting counter-arguments is quite often the best approach. But it can be rhetorically effective and, well, satisfying, to demonstrate not just that an argument is faulty or invalid, but ridiculous.

Isn’t it unrealistic to separate people from their arguments in this way? Won’t some people take it personally if we attack their arguments? Yes. And so we need practical wisdom, discernment, and we need to be quick to apologize when we cross the line. And yet it would be disastrous to confuse people and their arguments. People change views. And we change our minds when we dissociate ourselves from even our most dearly held opinions and the arguments (we think) support them. Just as we need to learn to hold our views openly, so also we need to encourage others to do the same. Or else this whole search for truth business is a lost cause.

Sex and gender: a useful distinction

I think one of the most powerful distinctions one can be armed with (for the sake of building a better society), in our present societal situation, is the distinction between sex and gender. Many people don’t understand the distinction, so it’s well worth expounding on.

SEX is a biological reality, which, for convenience’s sake, we can equate with certain physiological facts (as in, what’s between your legs). This is simplifying far too much, of course, because human biology doesn’t limit itself to two binary categories, as we sometimes assume (Google “intersex”). But for the sake of a first pass at the sex/gender distinction, we can say that one’s biological sex is either female or male.

GENDER is a social reality, which, for convenience’s sake, we can equate with a kind of performance (e.g. how do you dress? how long is your hair? etc.). Again, this is simplifying a bit. It is often useful, for instance, to distinguish between sexual identity (what one is “in one’s head”) and sexual expression (how one presents oneself to the world). But for the sake of a first pass at this important distinction, we can simply say that one’s gender is somewhere on the feminine (to androgynous) to masculine spectrum.

It goes without saying that one can be a feminine male or a masculine female. This is because, whereas SEX is mostly a ‘given’ of biology, GENDER is a performance. To call gender a performance is not to say it doesn’t have biological (e.g. hormonal) antecedents, and it is not to say that it is a self-consciously intentional performance. I don’t choose to shop on the men’s side of the store, I just do (and there are social consequences to pay if I don’t). The important point here is that, in our context, sex and gender are both subject to social policing–they are normative concepts. The policing of sex happens primarily in hospitals where (presumably well-meaning) doctors offer ‘corrective’ surgeries to intersexed babies and children (!), whereas the policing of gender happens all around us every day. We are expected to dress, act, and speak in certain ways appropriate to our gender. And if we fail to perform our (assumed) gender properly, there are social consequences to pay (scorn, obnoxious comments, and too often, violence).

For whatever cultural and cognitive reasons, many of us feel the need to police how others present themselves along gender lines. But we don’t have to!! And in fact, that policing is harmful. In a truly humanist culture, one’s gender performance is morally irrelevant. It might be aesthetically delightful, dreadful, or whatever. But the point is that it isn’t moralized. There’s nothing wrong with being a girly man. There’s nothing wrong with being a manly woman. There’s nothing wrong with wearing pants, a dress, eyeliner, no makeup, short hair, long hair, no hair, or whatever. Transgressions of what is assumed to be “normal” are harmless. They should be left alone. A guy in a dress might make you feel uncomfortable, but as long as he’s not assaulting anyone, leave him alone. You should be more morally worried about the dudebro making fun of him than about him.

We’ve come a long way. Not too long ago, what was judged “appropriate” for men and women was far more rigid than what passes as at least “good enough” today. But as long as people continue to be shamed and assaulted simply for how they choose to present themselves to the world, the world is not yet what it could and should be.

Live and let live.