Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Machina Ex Deus, part one (cl)

The Story So Far: cl and I are arguing on the internet! I outlined some metaphysics and epistemology in my last installment, and cl commented.

I used to be a theist; specifically, I was a fundagelical Christian. I saw God's hand in all things, I saw the Goddamned Devil at work in the world, I had promised my soul to Jesus several times and in several ways (I needed frequent fixes of God-smack), and I lamented that there should ever be anyone to not hear the glorious Word of God. I tried to be hopped up on God-smack as often as I could, and I'm not saying that to be pejorative: I thought the God-smack was good stuff at the time, and I thought that I was at my moral best when I was on it (full of Christ's love, in awe of the Maker's creation, etc.). Today I'm going to outline what changed - this is something of an autobiographical parable, inasmuch as I intend to gesture at my philosophical development while more or less ignoring everything else that was going on in my life and the world at large at the time.

Like all good parables, this one sets its tone with a metaphor. As I pointed out before, reality is ambiguous - or, rather, the relationship between reality and our perceptions is fundamentally unknowable because we are not omniscient, and therefore any perception of reality we might have is intrinsically ambiguous. So if I wake up with a headache and want to know what caused it and how to get rid of it, I have to do some brief testing: did I drink last night? I might have a hangover. Did I fight last night? I might have a bump on my head. And a million other things, too. Let's suppose for the moment that I don't remember what I did last night, but the two best competing explanations are that I either have a bump on my head, or I am hung over, or both (hooray for the inclusive "or").

A fairly direct method of testing whether I have a bump on my head is to feel around for one. But it might be the normal shape on my head, so it probably ought to be painful; that pain, in turn, could also be explained by a special sensitivity in that area for entirely bumpless reasons (for example, all people might have sensitive bumps in that spot on their heads - I don't know yet). To directly test whether I have a hangover, I could in principle do some bloodwork to check my BAC or look for metabolites or something, but that would be a pain, so I may just drink lots of water and see if the headache goes away. I could also take hangover medicine and see if it goes away. But in any event, if I take some action and then my headache clears up, I cannot tell for sure whether those two things are related at all; I can only make an "inference to the best explanation," or IBE.

Metaphor over, parable is go! Some years ago, I had an existential headache, and the two best explanations I could come up with were that I either had a sinful hangover, or a theistic bump on my head. I'm not sure quite what I did, but the headache went away. I realize that I may have merely taken a metaphysically naturalistic pill to mask the symptoms of my sinful hangover, which by rights I damn well ought to be feeling right now. That's a possibility. But the IBE I'm going with for now is that I had a theistic bump on my head from repeated doses of the fundagelical medicine stick. I stopped dosing, the bump went away, and my existential headache disappeared with it. So... what is my existential headache a metaphor for?

My existential headache consisted of an inability to reconcile any coherent idea of God with the observable facts of reality, to the best of my ability to interpret them.

One of my first understandings of morality was that "good" is a continuum, where a "lack of good" constitutes "evil," and a maximum of good would be perfection. Something like figure 1 here:
I now consider this a rather naive understanding of morality, mainly because it's grossly oversimplified, but it's not entirely without its merits. However, what I noticed is that if tolerance is within the "goodness range" of which humans are capable, then why can God not tolerate sin? Humans are able to live with each other's iniquities, to forgive those who trespass against us even if they keep doing it. I mean, hurting each other without meaning to do so is part of being human, and we can get over that, so why can't God tolerate sin in Heaven as he does on Earth? Well, I was told that it doesn't work like that, and rather something more like figure 2:
Here we see that there is God, who is Heavenly, and "other," which is Hellish. In between, overlapping with each but also having things all their own, is humanity. God is holy, and for that reason cannot abide sin in his presence, and so has withdrawn from the world until his final return. Humanity, being made in God's image, is able to understand some holy goods, such as mercy, justice, and compassion; but we are also capable of tolerating sin only because we ourselves are sinful. After all, if we dealt with each transgression as God says we should in the Bible, civilization would rather quickly collapse as we put to death everyone who violated pretty much any rule at all.

This explains why God tolerates sin on Earth, but not in Heaven, and by extension why we are on Earth and not in Heaven yet (because we still sin). But... wait... what exactly do we mean by sin? Definitionally, sin is that which God abhors, but why does God abhor it? Because he is holy? Then what is holiness? If it is mere godliness, then we have defined ourselves into a circle: whatever God does is holy because God's doing it, and whatever God abhors is sinful because God's abhorring it, and so to say that God is good is merely to say that God does as he pleases. I had not yet learned of the Euthyphro dilemma, but this is more or less how I arrived at it.

I realized at this point that there must be something about a particular thing which is sinful or holy, regardless of what God thinks of it; God's opinions, then, are the result of an interaction between his perfect perceptions of reality and its nature as sinful or holy, as the sinful or holy nature of the thing itself causes God to experience pleasure or disgust because of facts about God's personality. After drawing up tables and tables of sinful and holy things, however, I was unable to find any rhyme or reason behind the particular things that God told us were holy and sinful. It honestly looked to me like the Biblical deity was like a child with a sandbox, laying down arbitrary rules because he made everything, and wrecking our shit when he got upset with what we did just because he could. I see such a being as unworthy of worship, and if this is what God's like - an authoritarian dick-waver who thinks that merely being causally responsible for us (all by itself) gives him the right to tell us how to live - then I think we should all try to gang up on him Tower of Babel style. This is the behavior of a tyrant child, not of the rightful king of all existence.

How do I know this? Because if morality is fundamentally arbitrary and God's at the helm, then all he has to do to eliminate evil and suffering is get over his bad self and change his own mind. Moses did it (Exodus 32:9-14). Anyway, my own personal ethics has evolved somewhat, moving from a moral idea space to a "morally-charged" multidimensional idea space, as seen in figure 3:
Between then and now, my understanding for the best of all possible Gods morphed from any religious type of deity to something like Nick Ifkovits' idea as laid out in his novel, Cloud Drops (he's a friend of my mom's): in this story, God is more or less a laid-back hippie who really only cares about people being good to each other. You do that, you get to go to Heaven and have crazy orgies all day long; don't, and you are a lost spirit, destined to stick around on Earth stewing in your own existential angst. I believe that in the story, those who die without becoming either good or evil are "recycled" after a fashion, but don't quote me on that (I haven't read it in a while). But religious faith is absolutely meaningless to this deity, it truly is works alone that get one into Heaven on this view; you don't even need to be a theist! So if this is the real deal, then I've already got it made and thus have nothing to be saved from. Even if I didn't get to Heaven, I've striven to eliminate angst from my life, so I think that hanging around on Earth as a specter wouldn't really be all that bad.

Yet it seems almost too obvious that I might be wrong on this one, and I might need to believe this or that particular thing, even if I don't buy the whole kit & caboodle. For instance, it might be the case that I really do need to accept Jesus into my heart to get into Heaven; but the rest of the Bible might be pure hogwash!

This is where things get really complicated; part two on Friday.

No comments: