Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section 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

weoverme Post #4: The Great Other

26 Jan

Posted by Ezra Roizen

By way of background, you can read my thoughts on faith here.

It’s important to note that this question is not asking if in order to be GOOD a person must believe in GOD. Instead, it’s asking if God is a PREREQUISITE for Good.

I say He isn’t.

That said, I do think it’s fascinating that, as we stated in our introductory post: “despite our constitutional separation of Church and State, the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”  In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

Our nation’s institutions presuppose a Supreme Being!   To me that’s mind blowing.  We’ve constructed our nation-on, and put our trust-in, an entity which no one can actually prove exists.


I attribute this to the fundamental need for what I’ll call a “Great Other” – that good behavior requires a focal point – a shared belief in something.   The reason Town Halls are often the tallest building around is because they are a symbol of society – a reminder to be good, because of the Great Other.  Why else would we have flag poles?

It could be said that communism made society the Great Other, but that was a circular reference and eventually the system imploded.  The Great Other must be other than we – it must be something different on which we can all focus.

It’s funny how many movies have the basic Independence Day theme of a divided world one day being attacked by aliens, then all of a sudden all of humanity unites because we realize that even with all of our differences, we’re better off uniting joining forces against the common foe.   We unite because of a Great Other.

In parallel, I think Good is a progression.  It can be optimized and perfected.

So the important question to me is “what factors increase the amount of good?”  How do we create an environment which promotes good behavior and demotes bad?  In an excellent TED talk on the morality of animals Frans de Waal defines the “Pilars of Morality” to be what he calls Reciprocity (with a subtext of Fairness) and Empathy (with a subtext of Compassion).

Fairness and Compassion seem like good pillars to me.  How do we promote fairness and compassion?

Well, the biggest challenge is that human brains are pretty limited.  We forget stuff all the time, and need constant reminders to do the right things – and consider all priorities at once.  This is why Great Other is so valuable.  Most of us want to be good, but our brains can only fit so much in, so we sort of forget to be good when other factors take up our processing capacity.

So a Great Other is a constant index.  It’s why people ask the question “What would Jesus do?”  The Great Other keeps us honest.  Its simplicity is its beauty.

But is God the optimal Great Other?  Is God the best mechanism for increasing good behavior?

I think not.

God without religion is vacant, and pretty much every religion I know is both comprehensive and exclusive.  Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That’s pretty inflexible.  It means the only way to God is through Jesus.  What’s troubling is that on the cross Jesus also said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This leads me to believe that the Father and the Son may not always be on the same page.  Yet my only way to the Father is through the Son.

Given its exclusivity religion actually increases relativism in the name of absolutism, that is unless everyone all of a sudden joins the same religion – and given the idiosyncrasies of each I don’t see that happening, without, well, some (new) divine intervention.

Positing religion as the primary Great Other poses many challenges.  In the same way positing a nation has challenges as it’s also exclusive.  It’d be great if the Oakland A’s could be the global Great Other, but not everyone could get to the games, not even me if they move to San Jose.

What (or whom) is the Great Other to which we could all subscribe?

I propose the Earth as our global Great Other.  It’s something on which we can all focus, for which we can all be grateful, and over which we can all argue.  Good will be in the context of our Planet, and Planet-willing, when we occupy new planets, we’ll add them to our pantheon.

Would there be more or less Good if Earth was our Great Other?  Globally thanked, perfected, and celebrated.

I say yes!

I say God is not a prerequisite for good.  He may exist, but He’s not required.

But I do like the idea of a common Great Other –mOther Earth.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #4: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D

weoverme Post #3: Sacrificium reflectit Bonum

26 Jan

It has been stipulated that we know what is good because we know God.  In other words, God is the author of that which is good and he has allowed or revealed to us a capacity to recognize, that which is good.

But what is good?

Are puppies?

Are mosquitos?

There are many things; some are good, some maybe bad.  And some neither good nor bad, they just are.  And their goodness or badness might reflect a fleeting circumstance rather than some fundamental attribute.

So, what are we talking about?


But we know that morality varies across geography and time.  Also, we comprehend and can grapple with the complexity of a moral dilemma.  Like the one that faced Dietrich Bonheoffer when offered the opportunity to participate in an assassination plot against Hitler.

To kill is wrong.  On the other hand, not to attempt to eliminate the evil that was Hitler would be wrong.

What’s the moral thing to do?

It seems Good is hard to define when considering it apart from a specific object or circumstance.

I’m reminded of a story, The Peace Child.   According to Amazon’s description, In 1962, Don and Carol Richardson risked their lives to share the gospel with the Sawi people of New Guinea. Peace Child told their unforgettable story of living among these headhunting cannibals who valued treachery through fattening victims with friendship before the slaughter. God gave Don and Carol the key to the Sawi hearts via a redemptive analogy from their own mythology. ”

The interesting thing about this story was that the Sawi people, upon hearing the story of Jesus, and thinking Treachery was the highest virtue, considered Judas to be the hero!

Without giving away the punch line for those who have not yet read the story, the Richardson’s were able to find a common point of perception regarding Good in the form of a sacrifice.

That got me thinking.

Perhaps, we know Good in part because we know sacrifice.

And we know sacrifice because we know God.

Now, “knowing God” in this instance, doesn’t mean necessarily a personal relationship with Jesus Christ dedicated to a life following his teachings.  Knowing God in this instance is analogous to a tree knowing it needs to grow toward the sun.  The tree knows this by its nature.

We seem to have a similar natural appreciation for Good when perceived in the context of Sacrifice.

How do I know we know sacrifice?


Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, War Horse, actually come to think of it…a number of Spielberg movies….

We walk out of the theater having seen a movie like that, and we’re moved.  Moved by the notion that there’s something right, something good about the sacrifice.  And its not always a sacrifice of one for many.  Saving Private Ryan was a story about the many sacrificing for just one.

Another example of sacrifice: Jesus dying on the cross.

And let’s not forget, for us.

That sacrifice, in time, did not begin our acquaintance or understanding of sacrifice.  It served as the greatest example and in doing so revealed the author of the Good.

Now, we, created in his image, naturally move toward that truth like a tree grows toward the sun.

Unlike a tree, however, we know the identity of that good.  It’s God.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #4: The Great Other

weoverme Post #2: An Empirical Approach to the Question

19 Jan

Posted by Demian Entrekin

The question: whether or not there is good without God

I am going to take an empirical approach to the question. For this question, I am not interested in hypotheticals or scriptural interpretations. I am interested in familiar evidence, experiences that I have had myself.

What experiences have I had with good and what do those experiences tell me?

Since I have had no direct, personal experiences with any God, I will focus only on my experiences with good and see what those experiences tell me. And for the sake of the discussion, the idea of good is synonymous with moral.

After thinking about different personal experiences, I decided to draw on two connected events in my life to better examine the question of the good, the moral behavior.

1. Moving to Berkeley CA from Birmingham AL when I was a child
2. School desegregation in those two cities

I remember being bused across Berkeley in the 1970s to go to a school that was heavily African American. The bus crossed two major north-south streets that were both dividing lines of class and race. I also remember that it was a very controversial topic at the time. Nevertheless, the local government of Berkeley had decided to integrate schools in different neighborhoods because it was the right thing to do. It was the moral thing to do. School integration was a way to level the playing field for all. Leveling the playing field was the correct moral act.

The civic attitude toward school integration in Birmingham was altogether different. The governor of the state stood on the steps of public schools to block integration. The privileged white community was largely against school integration. It took federal action to change the behavior toward school integration. Armed men had to protect the few black kids who were sent to white schools.

This tells me that good, moral behavior is inherently regional. In one location, the collective idea of what is good can vary drastically from another geography.

When I went back to visit family in Birmingham as an adult, the idea of school integration had ceased to be a major issue. There remained a sizeable anti-integration constituency, but the public policy had in fact changed. Between 1963 and 2012, the idea of what was good, right, and moral had changed. It had been slow change but it had been change.

In Berkeley of 2012, the idea of school integration had also changed. People who had supported it were no longer sure it was practically effective, or at least perhaps not sufficient to improve education for all. But the question of its essential morality had become endemic, ingrained in the culture.

This led me to determine that the good, the moral, is also temporal. Over time the idea of good collective behavior can change in a particular region.

So, if the good, the moral, is both regional and temporal, then what does that say about the idea that God is a requirement for good? These two axes of morality suggest some consequences:

1. If good is regional, and God is required, then the relationship between God and good is also regional, and God is then inherently regional. “We have our God and they have theirs.” To me this fundamentally challenges the idea that one unifying God is required for good, and implies a polytheistic model for God and good.
2. If the good is temporal, and God is required, then the relationship between God and good is also temporal, and then God is inherently temporal. “Our God’s view of the good changes over time.” This idea fundamentally challenges the eternal nature of God, and makes God inherently inconstant in the evolving idea of what is good.

Certainly one could argue that God gives us the capacity to understand good, moral behavior and the rest is up to us. Or that God has given us the idea of good in some form of revelation or scripture, but that we simply fail to grasp it. This could explain why the good is both regional and temporal.

In both cases, however, God is no longer necessary for the application of moral behavior and is thus no longer a necessary participant in its application. The human world, in the scenario, would become something like God’s reality show, and both the world and God are made capricious, if not absurd.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #3: Sacrificium reflectit Bonum

weoverme Post #1: Does good need God to be good?

19 Jan

Does good need God to be good? Another and more basic way to ask this question is this: does being need Being to be? This is more basic, because all will agree that something, whether a thing or a state of affairs made up of things, has to exist before it can be regarded as good. “Good” is a judgment made regarding a thing or an action, and this involves their being, and that being, I will argue, necessarily entails independent, self-existent Being- and this, as Thomas Aquinas says, “is what all men call God”. And I’m saying “Being” here, because this argument is a purely philosophical one; it does not involve any special disclosure by Being of itself in humanlike form, in other words, it does not involve revelation. This Being is the measure of Good.

Let’s step back a moment though from that telescoped conclusion and see how this works. We would all agree that something is regarded as good because of what it is. Even if one wishes to argue a purely relativistic and utilitarian viewpoint, it remains that something “good for me” is good for me because of the way it is, and this, of course, presupposes the fact that it is at all. Classical philosophers call this “the convertibility of being and the good”.

For something to be is “more” than for it not to be. And this “more”, infinitely more than nothing, is good in the most basic sense, it is a positive plus. It is what we presuppose when we make further judgments about good in the realm of choice, because we can’t make choices about nothing. Choice is sometimes a tricky business, but the famous ethical quandaries- do we lie to prevent an evil? do we save grandma or baby from the burning house? – aren’t to the point for our present purposes. What I think all would agree on is that what we call good choices all have an increase of being as their goal. Now this shouldn’t be taken in some merely materially augmentative sense, but it’s good to start with that by way of illustration; a tree grows if it gets enough goods, namely the beings sunlight and water, and although the tree doesn’t choose, since it isn’t rational, we can say that sunlight and water are good for the tree, and that the tree’s good is growing to full height and activity. Likewise, when we choose, we are choosing among an order of things, in themselves all good at least as far as they exist, in order to increase our being, which increase is often invisible- greater information- but leads to manifestly visible effects.

So we begin with the fact of our existence, which is a touchstone, if not the only one, of “good”, and with the fact of other things’ existence which are also good insofar as they are, and which figure as relative goods with regard to our choice.

So far so good. Now let’s sketch out the basics of ethics which I think all participants in this discussion would agree on. The “good” is something both sides agree exist. The “godless” in this discussion certainly aren’t goodless; they aren’t for arbitrarily clubbing baby seals or tripping old ladies in the street. And the measure we all use for “good” is what conserves and increases being (the life of baby seals, the integrity of old ladies’ bones and feelings), in other words, we use being as the measure.
Of course, we live in a world where all beings are transitory, and at best reach a height of actuality of what they can be, and then fall off and pass away. In a way, time itself will club those baby seals if they live to adulthood, and likewise it will fatally trip all the old ladies. Although this is an immense question for both philosophy and religion, it actually needn’t detain us, because the basic facts of being and good remain what they are for choice, and time and transitoriness are media of our choices, but not subject to them.

Too, there is the huge question of the order of goods and the fact that all these beings, whose existence is good, are busy acting on each other in ways which don’t always look very good. The wolf eats the lamb to increase his own being at the expense of the lamb’s. What’s more, so do we (well, vegetarians don’t, but they would ruefully admit that the habit is still typical of us on the whole), and moreover we knock the wolf out too as an unwelcome competitor in this regard. Again, I think we can blithely skip this for the purposes of our discussion, though it, like temporality, is an immensely important matter. What we can say is that we are able to discern a sort of order and equilibrium in “nature red in tooth and claw”, and too, that people are not ruled by instincts or necessity in the same way animals are, but exercise choice. And it is human choice, the ethical good, which we are debating in this forum. And the principle we have in common is that good choices somehow involve maximization of being, and I think I can go further and guess that it’s safe to say that all of us would hold that this measure of maximization of being is something which transcends, while entirely including, personal or individual good. In other words, there is something in the nature of things, a common measure, which makes it wrong to trip the old lady or to toss a baby into the fire of Moloch.

At this point, we’ve looked very briefly at how the convertibility of being and the good works at the very root of choice. So where’s God? Or rather, as I said at the start, Being with a capital B. God has been there all along, in the being part. I’m not saying that all beings are God. What I will say is that nothing comes from nothing. As much as many would like to prohibit the question, the question of how the whole ensemble or suite of beings, that is, the world, got here, when in the world we see that everything that is is caused by something prior, remains. It really can’t be bracketed except by arbitrary policing. Our minds observe that in the whole array of being, all things arise by being caused by something prior, and that the world itself would be an exception is a very unreasonable postulate indeed. Constraints of space make it impossible to closely rehearse the much maligned because much misunderstood classical arguments from causation and causality to the existence of the First Cause. But I’ve already made the most basic point. We have every reason to think that the world is no exception to the order of cause which obtain within it. And given what we know of beings and the structure of being, certain things follow about that first cause, Being with a capital B.

For one thing, it couldn’t be inferior to us, since we’re in the realm of its effects- it would therefore have to be intelligent, though what that means for it would be a very different thing from what it means for us. And it would have to be the source of all being’s being, but without the limitations of those beings, since then it couldn’t cause them absolutely. I can cause the coffee cup to move, mating squirrels can cause new squirrels, but these kinds of cause are more modifications of being than causation of being as such. That plus over nothing is the question, and the cause of that has to be non-limited Being, another word for which is “infinite Being”, and judged to unitary, self-existent (on pain of infinite regress), and somehow aware, awarer than we are by a long shot. And this, to quote Aquinas again, is “what all men call God”. We’re not talking yet about anything or anyone which recruits Mesopotamian tribesmen, parts seas, or loves us in a way meaningfully analogous to the best human love we know. We’re just talking about the inevitable framework which our ethical judgments and actions presuppose, whether we are articulately conscious of that or not. But Aquinas is right- given what that reality is, we can, with the appropriate qualifications, call it God.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #2: An Empirical Approach to the Question.

weoverme #3: There is no GOOD without GOD

19 Jan

The thesis for our third debate is that “There is no GOOD without GOD.”

This debate will be between two teams of four.

One team, led by moderator Bart Garrett will argue in support of this thesis – that a higher power is a prerequisite for good in the universe. moderator Ezra Roizen will lead a team which will argue that good is a natural phenomenon, and that higher powers are not, necessarily, required.

Why debate this thesis?

Many argue that a higher power is a prerequisite for a moral universe. By way of example, despite our constitutional separation of Church and State, the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”  In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” and that this recognition of God does not constitute the establishment of a state church.

Others feel that there is no need for a higher power to compel us to do and be good.  That, to use the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, our objective is “to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.”  Paying-it-forward does not require an almighty supreme being, but instead, it is just an amplification of the kind of love and hope a parent feels for their child. feels this is a fundamental issue and its discussion will provide a great deal of insight into the underlying approach we all take to our lives, our community, and our planet.

The format for the next event is going to be a modified Oxford style debate.  In preparation for the event each of the eight debate team members are going to post their initial thoughts on the topic.  We are going to post these blogs in pairs over the next few weeks in buildup to the event at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club on Feb 21st.

We invite you to join the conversation on the blog, and to register for the event!

And if you do plan to attend the event – please make sure to register as space will be very limited.

Sign up for the mailing list and stay in the loop!

Summary of the eight pre-debate posts:

Post 1: Does good need God to be good?

Post 2: An Empirical Approach to the Question

Post 3: Sacrificium reflectit Bonum

Post 4: The Great Other

Post 5: You cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D

Post 6: Airports, bars, Reno

Post 7:  Good For Me vs. Good For We

Post 8:  Minimalist in my belief system

weoverme #2 Summary Post on Education

23 Jul

Post by Bart Garrett

The old adage: Don’t talk about politics and religion in public. I have heard this improved upon: Don’t talk about politics, religion, and parenting in public. Might I add one further revision: Don’t talk about politics, religion, parenting, and EDUCATION in public!

Actually, our second event provided a safe place for an enriching conversation on education, and the presenters and audience took full advantage, providing passionate and intelligent dialogue on how education in America could be greatly improved.

We began the evening with a brief overview of Then, Ezra and I each took 5 minutes to summarize our blog posts on the topic of education. Ezra presented his five-point plan on a new model for schools:

1)       literacy in a core set of disciplines (math, science, literature, etc.)

2)      adequate exercise

3)      creative opportunities (art, dance, music, etc.)

4)      social skill development and the installation of “pan-American” values (freedom, liberty, justice, equal opportunity)

5)      Basic preparedness for work and life.

I responded with a genuine appreciation for Ezra’s insights along with five concerns that I have with respect to the limitations of Ezra’s plan:

1)       Fairness- Equality for students isn’t considered in Ezra’s plan beyond a passing comment.

2)      Feasibility- With politicians speaking past one another and afraid to tackle the genuine “big issues,” (like education), will we have the political resolve to make drastic changes in how we approach education?

3)      Cultural values- Does our culture value creativity (art, dance, music, etc.)? Do we create or simply consume? How does the culture narrative of our citizens need to be “re-storied” in a way that will engender creative opportunities for our students?

4)      Moral/Ethical values- Without a moral compass beyond our politic du jour, are Ezra’s “Pan-American” values really totalitarianism in disguise? What are the coordinates of moral and ethical training and development? Who gets to decide? Here is one quote from my initial post:

If values like freedom, liberty, and equal opportunity are only attached to current political ideologies and lack any sort of transcendent rootedness, then they will not be able to flourish in their own right. They will morph and change on the whim of the majority. It is no surprise that we are apathetic and that this apathy is a cancer on society (as Ezra notes)! To be truly pluralistic as a society is to recognize the necessary and important place of religion in the broader cultural conversation. I am tired of “values” training in public schools being nothing more than Trojan Horses of political import (perhaps we could call them Lobby Horses).

5)      Parents- Does Ezra’s plan affirm that parents are the fuel and engine that will drive real educational reform and future development? Or, are we simply outsourcing parenting like we do our lawn and our taxes?

After Ezra and I presented our “arm-chair” philosophies on education, two people that really had something to say, Crystal Brown and Rich Heeps, each presented. Crystal, a mother of three daughters attending public school in San Francisco, and a founding member and the president of the Board of Directors of Educate Our State, adroitly reminded us of how crucial it is to advocate politically for education reform in the state of California. Not only crucial for our children here in the state (25% of California’s high school students don’t complete high school in four years, 50% of California prison inmates don’t complete high school, and it costs $47,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate), but also for our children in the rest of the country and world (1 out of every 8 students in America is educated in California! As California goes, so goes the nation). She is a crusader for high-quality public education with well-managed funding that is consistent, equitable, and appropriate to meet all students’ needs.

Rich Heeps has been a corporate CEO, CFO, and General Counsel (with MBA and JD degrees from Stanford), but his passion as a parent and concerned citizen has been assisting Alameda Country with needed education reform. He spoke winsomely about his daughter’s work in bringing educational opportunities to all students regardless of socio-economic class, race, etc. He cited the “definitive landmark case” (his quotes) with respect to education (No, not Brown v. the Board of Education), but rather, The San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case of 1973. In this case it was ruled that a school-financing system based on local property taxes was not an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause because the appellees did not sufficiently prove that “education is a fundamental right.” He said that we need to advocate for a “shift of the National Will of the People—that we would once again begin to view education for all children as a fundamental right.”

Thank-you, Crystal and Rich, for sharing the evening with us and for sharing your passion and life’s work with us. We feel honored and blessed by your presence! These two excellent presentations seeded small-group discussion around two questions:

1)       What is the goal of education?

2)      If we are going to reform education, then we must consider ____________.

After the small groups discussed these two questions, we concluded the time in a large group discussing our findings. Answers to the first question involved things like “creating thoughtful and articulate citizens,” and “affording everyone the opportunity to discover who they are and what role in society they could play.” As for the second question, all sorts of considerations were raised and then batted around the room until the wine wore off and the next day’s work beckoned us to bed. The gist of this conversation involved the good, bad, and ugly of unions (In the past, unions have fought for dignity and respect for our teachers, but have they outlasted their calling and function?), the role of the federal government in education, the necessity to offer quality education that doesn’t shrink-wrap and form-fit individual students, and the place of the parent in education.

Thank-you to each one who attended the event. Your presence brought life and joy, and we look forward to sharing conversation with you at future events!


Follow on perspective by Ezra Roizen

Put the strategy before the tactics

Bart does a great job above summarizing the key points of the second event, so I’m going to focus my reply more on a couple gaps in our framing of the question and a theme I picked up at the event: people.

The two biggest gaps in my original 5 point plan post were that I failed to mention the role of parents (which Bart picked up in his original reply) and that I also failed to mention teachers!  In short, the people who drive the process.

Crystal’s organization, Educate our State is a parent activation network and is clearly trying to bring parents more actively into the education process.  Rich spoke eloquently (if at times pointedly) about his concerns about the current institutions which drive education, in particular the unions – that they have lost sight of the goal and are instead focused on self interest (and to be fair, I personally believe some amount of self interest is natural in any collective bargaining organization (such as a union)). But I think Rich’s point is that we’re well beyond enlightened self interest on the part of the unions and are instead are caught in a tractor beam that is sucking the life out of our schools (and ironically our teachers).  What is interesting is that both spoke about, people (not process).

The third key group of people are the STUDENTS.  Point #4 of my original 5 point plan was:

to learn social skills (sharing, community) and for them to have instilled in them basic pan-American values (freedom, liberty, justice, equal opportunity)

In our breakout session SB Master, a Silicon Valley branding genius (the woman who named PayPal) and Rajesh Chandran a highly accomplished technologist both focus on the “person” in setting their priorities for formal education.  I would have thought SB with her poetic skills of capturing the essence of things might have said the humanities and liberal arts, as I might have thought Rajesh with his supreme technical skills might have said students need first to be grounded in math and science and then build from there…

Instead the word that trumped literacy, or competence, or even creativity was – citizen.

Rajesh summarized his educational foundation in one word “civics.”  Rajesh felt that if we ingrained a deep sense of civic duty we would produce productive citizens of a health society.  SB Master felt education should focus on creating “thoughtful and articulate citizens” – again – about the student as a person.

So, it’s people, we can adjust the mechanics of education, as I describe in my 5 point plan – but those mechanics are tactics.  The strategy has to start with the outcome: a healthy society run by fit citizens.  We can then design our curriculum, guide our parents and select, motivate, and reward our teachers.

Education is the process of creating citizens.  Our strategy follows from here…

Once again, this was an eye opening and edifying process – I now feel I have a much clearer picture of the opportunities and challenges facing our education system and I believe I’ll make better, more contextually aware, decisions about how to influence this system.

This is our hope for everyone who participates in the process.

Thanks to all and Bart and I will see you at the next one!