Archive | February, 2013 Post 8: Minimalist in my belief system

14 Feb

I am unashamedly reductionist or — more to my liking — minimalist in my belief system.  To me, it is sufficient to (I) have a narrative that probabilistically exposes the banality of present belief systems & (II) piece together a minimal set of rules that can both explain and guide our behavior.  All else is accidental candy.

On to…

(I) An Explanation of Why We Believe

Conversion narratives from godlessness are incredibly compelling.  They are, after all, the narratives that have survived generations — naturally selected over time.  It’s unlikely that I’d come up with a counter-narrative that supercedes these evolved ones.  No amount of facts will convert the average evolution “skeptic”.

“Douglas [Adams], I miss you. You are my cleverest, funniest, most open-minded, wittiest, tallest, and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh — though not as much as you made me… Douglas’s conversion by my earlier books — which did not set out to convert anyone — inspired me to dedicate to his memory this book — which does!”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Not for us evidence and logic and …  let’s stick to stories … instead, let’s kidnap a newborn and put him on a desert island with automatons to provide for his physical and mental nourishment.  As this feral creature grows, it is given purely a “reductionist” (alternatively, “scientific”) view of the way a few randomly-selected things work.  Can you imagine that he develops arbitrarily complex belief systems stitching together his unknowns?  Of course!  (Let’s ignore that it’s a natural side effect of a kind of creativity borne of aeons of evolution)  Is it likely that the narrative is anywhere close to the baroque ones that humanity has thus far created?  Probably not.

Why is this story so easy to believe?  We intuit that the accidental wiring that makes connections and fantasies and theories is somehow baked into us.  (It’s an evolutionary artifact)  These connections, we stitch into complex narratives and the “sticky” among them survive generations.  Had we the lifetimes, we might create so many beautiful narratives from so many feral seeds on desert islands.  I don’t need Aquinus to Godel to build these. And which one to choose?  None.

(II) How to Correctly Make Belief

Let’s make the least assumption given what we know of evolution — it’s easy to project that we wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for some of the evolutionary quirks that made us collaborate.  That’s it.  That’s a pleasantly minimal set of assumptions that might explain the way we are — the individuals that survive are the ones that behave “well” in a collective.  “Good” emerges as merely interpretations of this evolutionary soup and dissolves in it.  Identity and ego and “bad” and “evil” — those are still well within the bounds of possible (un)happy side effects of evolution.  Why construct more than this facade?

And to wrap this up, let me assert one thing without evidence:  Scientific thinking isn’t about knowing — it’s about being vastly content with not knowing about a tremendous amount.  And preparing to uncover more using fragile, ever charging forms.  Even with all this, our accidental wiring has its accidental joys.  Here’s a snippet from the best among most men (in most ways):


Advertisement Post #7: Good For Me vs. Good For We

14 Feb

Posted by Bambi Francisco

There is a book titled “Is She The One?” I never read it, but I told someone who was curious about the book’s content that I could sum it up in two words: “Know yourself.”

In like vein, I think knowing “good” requires an ontological understanding of oneself.  Knowing who we are, and the meaning of our existence, gives us purpose, reason and a sense of being from which we make decisions on how to be (or behave). Behaving is just following the rules. The essence of good is much more.

Before I begin, I want to make clear – as Ezra and Bart have – that the God camp isn’t saying the god-less cannot be good. God does not stand between humans and loathsome behavior. Some of the kindest people I know are atheists, or agnostics.  The question is: could there be good at all if God didn’t exist?

I’ll try to explain why God is the best source of good, rather than humanity’s ability to genetically evolve as well as construct our own values of right and wrong.

Here are my postulates:

1)     Nature: We are born with an understanding of a basic good (protecting our kind) and evil (selfishness). But the essence of good is not biological in nature (to the dismay of the god-less), and it is what separates us from animals.

2)     Nurture: True goodness comes from humility, which comes from knowing there is something greater than ourselves, namely God. We are a product of our environment and learn through families, movies, books, etc.  God (incarnate through Jesus Christ) is the quintessential example of humility.


Let me start with a definition of good: one less descriptive, rather more normative. In other words, good that transcends time and geography – in many ways, a good we share with other animals. There are few of those, especially agreed upon by all, though one seems plausible: it is goodness that drives each of us to protect ourselves and our tribe.

It is not good that emerges from cultural and social norms, such as believing it’s good for women to cover themselves from head to toe to show chastity, or that same-sex marriage is good, or that it’s good not to separate black, brown, and white people; or that eating non-caged eggs is good.

It is an innate good, such as choosing to be with someone who makes you feel safe, that is evident as early as three months (60 Minutes  report “Babies help unlock origins of morality”).

But this notion of protection and self-preservation isn’t the entirety of goodness. Animals protect their own. If good was only to protect our tribe, we’d be driven by self-interest, which could lead to cutting lines, cheating on taxes, to slavery and horrific acts of genocide.

There must be something else that counters self-interest, or selfishness (also found evident by three months old (60 Minutes report)). Call it what you will: a selfish gene or a sinful nature. It exists.

Evolutionary biologists would hold up their long-held tenet that there is a genotype allowing humankind to show altruism and sacrifice, particularly toward their own kind. This altruism – jumping on a grenade to protect our fellow soldiers or offering our life for our child’s – also known as “kin selection” is what allows society to bind together. Many biologists would argue that this altruism is driven by selfish motives: the innate drive to pass on genes.

Another view brings group selection back into vogue. In a book titled “The Social Conquest of Earth,” by biologist Edward O. Wilson, Wilson postulates that an altruistic gene comes from environmental pressures” that began “selecting for traits that increasingly drew group members into cooperative relationships.” Selfish individuals may beat altruistic ones, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish people.

Unfortunately, for the god-less team, both views remain challenged, with the first having a paucity of evidence supporting it.

And, altruism based on selfish motives leads to the destruction of civilization. If we are designed to favor our own kind, then what are our chances of attaining global harmony? Ironically enough, human self-interest may be so sophisticated and deceitful that it could create faux relationships to attain harmony, though only temporary and fleeting. Think about how nations have aligned themselves in cooperation or competition over the last 50 years. Think about how the Predator was our enemy, until the aliens came along. There will always be an enemy.

With regards to the latter, this “group” think only explains what is good for each group, but not the collective whole. If one group violates another, it may be seen as good or bad by either side. At best, both sides eventually agree (temporarily). At worse, it’s tribal protectionism that leads to genocide. Those who say good is just a form that exists independently as an action that’s neither right or wrong until human’s label it as such, to them the question is: Do you feel injustice when you hear of such atrocities like the Bosnian War (‘92-‘95), or Rwanda (’94).

Were the Hutu groups that carried out the massive killings of 500,000 Tutsi right or good because the Tutsi tried to kill them?  Was it self-defense, hence good, at least in their eyes? I think we can agree that human rights were violated. Sure. We have to know more. But even if the Hutu group was disenfranchised and threatened, and saw their kind killed, would you feel it was OK for them to blindly kill any Tutsi? Is that ever good? Most of you would think not.

If so, do you feel this way because society has come to a level of civility and appreciation of human dignity that marks such acts as horrific and wrong? And then if you also agree to that statement, how have we come to agree? In a world of subjectivity, how can we ever agree? How do we ever unite?

Now it doesn’t mean we’ll never reach universal harmony, it just would suggest the evolution of our genes will not get us there.

There is something far more than natural selection at work.  The human brain is not just a “linearly scaled-up monkey brain” which will continue to evolve from whence we came, suggesting that chimpanzees will one day reach an enlightened or abstract understanding as ours.

Much as I liked Planet of the Apes, I hesitate to believe that these anthropoid mammals will ever be nominated to the Supreme Court or win a Medal of Honor. Even Frans de Waal, a famous ethologist who provides extensive biological research that would support the evolutionist cause, would say that what “sets human morality apart is a move towards universal standards, combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment… We scientists are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work… But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.”

There is something that separates humans from animals. There is a different type of altruism that comes, as Jason touched on, from our sense of being.


Ezra talks about a Great Other. Bart refers to a standard bearer, a reference point, something other that helps humanity decipher good from bad. Immanuel Kant has the concept called categorical imperative. They all are pretty much in alignment.  There is more than, as Socrates would put it, “the sun-lit world of the senses to be good.”

As you can imagine, being in awe of a “Great Other” – a mountain peak, the depths and the rage of the ocean, or a god – is a great driver of humility.

The earth, however, doesn’t call us to worship or love it first.  If it did, there would be very different interpretations of what the earth wants. And, that would lead to relativism, which is flawed because it denies any truth to any position. There is no one speaking for the earth. As far as I know the Lorax doesn’t exist.

But God commands our attention. There’s no mincing words or meaning when it comes to the commandments: Thou shall have no other Gods before me. It’s unequivocal. It’s absolute.

This means, we love Him before we love anyone else including ourselves, our spouses and our children. This sense of worship of something “other than” takes our mind away from the “me.”  This authority over us reminds us that we have a duty and a purpose, not of our own. When we have this ontological view of our life, we are wired with a motivation that is beyond compare.

Good is defined through the prism of humility, which is often counter to many other worldviews.

For those who don’t believe in a “Great Other” or a god, ask yourself what drives you to be good?

Many people look to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Or maybe they look to self-improvement books that encourage them to “learn to love themselves” because loving yourself first leads to happiness. And, as it were, happy people generally do good things. I also like this one: “Start telling yourself that you are kind.

But all of these exercises are ultimately self-serving. And, being self-serving may serve you well, but never everyone.

Where then do we learn about humility? When we realize the world is not full of equals and we’re not as fast, or rich, or beautiful or smarter than some? Our parents? Fairytales? Gandhi? Mother Teresa? All of the above?

I would argue that one of the quintessential examples of humility and one that resonates throughout the secular world and has been a prime influencer on how we view servitude, humility and goodness is the agent of God himself, who Christians would say, rides a donkey and wears rags. If you don’t believe how the world changed after that story weaved itself into our lives, just look at the time of Augustine and the pagan world and see how morality was shaped thereafter.

Even the staunchest of atheists cannot hide under a rock and avoid having heard or been influenced by stories, such as the Good Samaritan.

Whether we choose to believe it or not, we’ve been touched by this message. There is a message. Someone is peaking to us, whether we choose to hear it or not. There are two goods. Good for me. Good for we. Good for me makes me no better than an animal. Good for we requires something much greater than I.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #8: Minimalist in my belief system

weoverme Post #6: Airports, bars, Reno

6 Feb

Posted by Will Quist

Sitting in a bar at the Reno Airport, internalizing the relationship between God and good – seemingly not the ideal location to ponder the question at hand. Popular opinion would probably be very little exists in any of airports, bars, or Reno – let alone in the combination of those three. Until the slot machine 50 feet away started coughing up coins and it hit me – that guy probably thinks that things in here are pretty good. And that’s when I realized that this actually might be the perfect setting to inform this debate…

When the topic and question were first posed, I was at a loss. Feeling severely under-powered intellectually (the preceding posts have done nothing to quell those fears, but I plow onwards), I was worried that I was missing something in the approach to the question. I couldn’t seem to get past the fact that good seems so subjective and God seems so subjective, how could one be a precedent condition for the other? It had to be more complicated. But the more time I spent with it, I realized that it really might be just that simple…

On the flight into Reno I was reading George Leonard’s book on the way of Aikido (side note: I highly recommend reading his works, and don’t be surprised to see me in an Aikido class soon). Aikido is fascinating on so many levels, but at its core is maintaining your calm and composure to use the energy of others to not only thwart attacks, but see the world from your opponents perspectives – if only for a split second – and then use the energy and perspective to make an optimal move. Essentially, Aikido breaks all interactions in an effort to gain as much context as possible in order to better understand those around you and to better make optimal movements. Implicit in that we do not all view the world the same way. There is no universal point of view.

For those following along, I am sure early essays are now beginning to resonate. Things, life, existence are purely a matter of context. Some people may feel that designated hitters, a low payroll, and an early playoff exit are “good” baseball. Those on the right side of the Bay may not see the “good’ in that through our World Series parade (okay, literally the left side of the bay – but, I guess that is also a matter of context – I am not sure who would be the east bay if South Americans had drawn the first maps). “Things” are not so much defined by what they innately are, as much as they are defined by the context in which they exist. It is not debatable that my version of “Good” – whether that is food, movies, or morals – is going to differ from someone who grew up in another household, let alone across the globe. The context gained from our unique situations leaves us all defining the same things in drastically different ways.

The basis for our individual context is largely the combination of small dose of individual experience combined with a heavy influence of social norms. Those norms are largely driven by the social conventions and institutions within which we each exist. Now, this is where I undermine myself again by poaching from another earlier essay. These social conventions and institutions all have their roots in the “Great Other”. Arguably, God, in all His / Her / Their myriad forms, forms the basis for a large number of these constructs we all live in that dictate a large portion of context. But not all. This is the second point where I encroach on earlier arguments. Not all social constructs, conventions which drive the context we use to understand the world, are built on the back of God, however believers believe in that being. And therein lies the fault with the premise.

God, undoubtedly, has formed the backbone of the belief systems for a large number in the world, and those belief systems drive context for a large number of people, which in turn does define good for a great many people– making it easy to make the leap to God’s existence being a precedent for good.

Good, and almost anything really, can exist independent of my feelings on the subject. Just ask the guy who is $500 richer for playing slots on his way to somewhere Southwest flies. That is the beauty of humanity, but also the difficulty with finding God as a precedent for our subjective experiences.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #7: Good For Me vs. Good For We

weoverme Post #5: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D

6 Feb

Posted by Bart Garrett

After reading the first four blogs, two introductory comments:

First, a restatement of what others have previously acknowledged: We are NOT debating whether or not PEOPLE need GOD to be GOOD, but rather, whether or not GOOD needs GOD to be GOOD. These two debates are very different. The first would be about behavior that is good, while the second about the being (or essence) of good. In the first debate, the “godless-team” would march out all of its secular saints to demonstrate how good people who do not believe in god can be. The “god-team” would then march out all of its sacred saints and we would say, “Oh, yeah, well our saints can beat up your saints!” (‘er, rather: “Our saints would never beat up your saints because our saints are so good!”). Then, we would all agree that none of us is an exemplar of “the good,” but that our trajectory (godless or godful) has us on the right track.

The second debate, on the essence of goodness, would be lot more interesting. The “godless-team” might argue that we can apprehend “the good” in all sorts of ways and through all sorts of means. But the “god-team” will argue that in making that claim, the “godless-team” makes a Grand-Canyon-Chasmic assumption: A definition of moral good is possible without some sort of objective, outside standard, reference point, measuring stick, or criterion. And, we would argue that god is the most plausible origination from which true goodness emanates.

Second introductory comment: Thanks to my seven conversation partners. The two dinners together were wonderfully gracious affairs. And the blog posts have been incredibly engaging. Though, in attempting to rev up my brain for this debate, they have caused me to feel a bit like I am on a moped circling a Cheerio while the others are taking 200mph turns at the Indy 500. It is my humble prayer that my post adds some gas for the tank.

My two postulates:

(1) There is a universal standard for moral goodness.
(2) God as its ultimate origin is the best hypothesis.

There is a universal standard for moral goodness.

In the Seinfeld episode, “The Yada Yada,” Jerry takes a rare visit to the confessional booth to visit Father Curtis. While sitting, rather than kneeling, on the kneeler, he offers his confession: “I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.” Father Curtis responds, “And this offends you as a Jewish person?” “No,” Jerry banters, “it offends me as a comedian.”

It is vintage Seinfeld, and the crowd, aided by the laugh track, erupts. Why is this so funny? Because, we all know, in keeping with good decorum, that we should offer deferential respect toward someone else, especially when it comes to his or her ethnicity or religious affiliation, and particularly to a Jewish person given the 1930s-40s. But, as is customary in this “show about nothing,” Seinfeld turns etiquette sideways, and suggests that the respect and dignity are due him, not because of who he is ethnically or believes religiously, but because of what he does—he is a comedian. Jerry is offended, first, because there is a common decency, a goodness, which Dr. Whatley should extend in the form of respect toward him yet does not. I contend that this courtesy would affirm both basic human rights and the basic dignity (or worth) of a human being. Jerry is offended, second, because his rights as a comedian, rather than a Jew, are violated.

This dual offense demonstrates that our acceptance and application of the moral good varies from place to place and from time to time. In the 1940s, Dr. Whatley’s conversion is offensive to Jewishness, but in the 1990s it is offensive to Comedianishness. Yet, it also demonstrates that there is still some sort of innate notion of moral goodness (basic rights, human dignity, etc.) that should never be violated or compromised.

Lets move from pop culture to anthropology. One of the more interesting test cases for universal moral goodness is found in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1995. In it, Dr. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, an anthropologist, writes an article entitled, “Anthropologists, Cultural Relativism, and Universal Rights.” Fluehr-Lobban comments:

“The issue of violence against women throws the perils of cultural relativism into stark relief. Following the lead of human-rights advocates, a growing number of anthropologists and others are coming to recognize that violence against women should be acknowledged as a violation of a basic human right to be free from harm. They believe that such violence cannot be excused or justified on cultural grounds. Let me refer to my own experience. For nearly 25 years, I have conducted research in the Sudan, one of the African countries where the practice of female circumcision is widespread, affecting the vast majority of females in the northern Sudan. Chronic infections are a common result, and sexual intercourse and childbirth are rendered difficult and painful. However, cultural ideology in the Sudan holds that an uncircumcised woman is not respectable, and few families would risk their daughter’s chances of marrying by not having her circumcised…. For a long time I felt trapped between, on one side, my anthropologist’s understanding of the custom and of the sensitivities about it among the people with whom I was working, and, on the other, the largely feminist campaign in the West to eradicate what critics see as a ‘barbaric’ custom. To ally myself with Western feminists and condemn female circumcision seemed to me to be a betrayal of the value system and culture of the Sudan, which I had come to understand. But as I was asked over the years to comment on female circumcision because of my expertise in the Sudan, I came to realize how deeply I felt that the practice was harmful and wrong.”

In a respected, academic journal, Dr. Fluehr-Lobban concludes this paper with a “deep” feeling that this practice was wrong. Typically, deep feelings have no legs to stand upon in academic papers, but I imagine most everyone intuitively agrees with her sentiment. She then concludes the paper with these words: “[When] there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should choose to protect and promote human rights. We cannot just be bystanders.”

That most people would agree with her conclusion is to suggest that most people will not struggle with my first postulate: “There is a universal standard for goodness.” A small minority might insist that everyone is free to decide right from wrong, yet caveats abound:

(1) Do no evil.
(2) Empathy always and everywhere.
(3) Your rights end where my rights begin.
(4) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Yes, indeed, most will acknowledge that there is some sort of universal standard for moral goodness. Two questions to pose to oneself further elucidate this:

(1) Is there anyone, anywhere doing something that I find morally reprehensible?
(2) If so, then I believe there is some sort of moral standard that people should abide by regardless of what they might believe personally, do I not?

But a third, self-imposed question gives us greater pause:

(3) Then, from where (or whom) does that standard originate?

God as its ultimate origin is the best hypothesis.

Some of us would say that this standard originates merely from people—there are cultural conditions and social constructions that define goodness. Groups, societies, and cultures develop moral standards over time. A set of individuals living collectively in community must learn to agree upon the rules. Others would say that this standard for moral goodness originates sheerly from nature: The genes of altruistic ancestors whom operated cooperatively and unselfishly were passed along, while selfish genes did not proliferate and propagate. Over time, we have come to call this good.

For those who attach moral goodness to cultural construction, notice that the anthropologist still chooses human rights over cultural conditioning. Do not miss the conundrum this raises: Where does she derive this notion of universal human rights? From the West? From whites? From women? From the well-educated? This is simply a culture coup: My culture’s notion of right and wrong, of good and evil, is better than yours! It seems very dangerous to view cultural conditioning as the ultimate force or origination for moral goodness. One better hope that his culture is on the top! Further, as demonstrated by Dr. Fluehr-Lobban’s “deep” emotional response, cultural construction seems an insufficient ground for a universal impulse we all feel about some sort of universal good.

But what about nature? Sheer evolutionary process? This would at least grant a moral universal ubiquity to our notion of moral goodness. Modern philosophers like Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and Thomas Nagel rests their cases upon this premise. Modern scientists like Richard Dawkins and neuroscientists like Sam Harris do as well. I am out of space here, but I would love to spend more time engaged in Marilynne Robinson’s fine work, Absence of Mind, and the arguments she makes regarding the limitations of mere mechanistic evolution in handling radical altruism. She writes: “By the extremely parsimonious standard of Neo-Darwinism, [altruism] is the proverbial bad penny, liable to show up anywhere.” Further, the most oft applied theory to altruism extended to strangers, the theory usually marched out as the debate-clincher, is game theory. This baffles me, given that each player tries to find a solution least harmful or most beneficial to the self, hardly an explanation of radical altruism involving sacrifice for strangers.

Thus, scientists begin to make unverifiable leaps of faith to explain the unknown:

We have more than genes, we have memes.
We have more than our universe, we have multiverses.

But, what if the best hypothesis for the origination of universal, moral goodness was God? Some might laugh at the claim that there is some sort of transcendent moral order with God as the source, but it is certainly no less plausible than saying: “The meme made me do it,” or “It could happen in the universe next door.” More to come…we hope to see you on February 21st!

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #6: Airports, bars, Reno