Tag Archives: Theology

Quote for the Day – Theology and Idealism as Rhetorical Devices in Academic Philosophy

In old times, whenever a philosopher was assailed for some particularly tough absurdity in his system, he was wont to parry the attack by the argument from the divine omnipotence. ‘Do you mean to limit God’s power?’ he would reply: ‘do you mean to say that God could not, if he would, do this or that?’ This retort was supposed to close the mouths of all objectors of properly decorous mind. The functions of the bradleian absolute are in this particular identical with those of the theistic God. Suppositions treated as too absurd to pass muster in the finite world which we inhabit, the absolute must be able to make good ‘somehow’ in his ineffable way. First we hear Mr. Bradley convicting things of absurdity; next, calling on the absolute to vouch for them quand même. Invoked for no other duty, that duty it must and shall perform.

~William James, The Pluralistic Universe

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Quote for the Day – Feynman on Religion: “The stage is too big for the drama.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

~Richard Feynman, quoted in Genius, by James Gleick

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An Ontological Argument for Atheism

This is a totally unoriginal thought, but I can’t remember where I learned about the ontological argument for atheism. It’s been bouncing around my head for awhile, so if anyone could tell me who originated this argument it’d be appreciated. I’ve probably butchered it anyhow, but here goes.

The ontological argument for theism is supposed to prove God exists from the supposition that the concept of God includes not only the properties of being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good but the property of perfection itself. That is, God, if He is anything at all, is the most perfect being that could possibly exist. Now here’s the workhorse of the ontological argument: does the property of existence itself count amount the properties that a perfectly perfect being necessarily has? Theists answer in the affirmative, since surely a God that exists is more perfect than a God that does not exist. And since God is by definition the most perfect being possible, we can conclude that God exists because the most perfect being would perfectly have the property of existence .

“Not so fast!” says the atheist. Consider this. One of God’s most impressive alleged feats was the creation of the universe, an event universally considered to be a big deal. But wouldn’t it be more impressive if God had managed the trick of creating the universe without existing at all? Now that would be impressive! To make yourself vanish and in your place have a universe. Neat trick. A God who could do that seems more powerful than a God who couldn’t even manage to create a universe without existing. When you think about it, it seems awfully easy to create the universe if you actually exist. But to do so from beyond the grave is very difficult. But if anyone could do it, it’s God alright. Therefore, God does not exist.

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The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

A Roman Catholic priest created an Ask Me Anything thread the other day on Reddit. One redditor asked the following question:

“If a man came to you in confessional and admitted to murdering someone and shares intent to do it again, do you go to the police or do you respect the rules of confession? If you read in the paper that he did it again the next day, how would you feel?I went to Catholic school for 12 years and this has been my favorite question to ask of priests since I was really young, because the answer actually varies.”

Surprisingly, this is how the priest answered:

” The seal of the confessional is inviolate, even if the person has murdered someone.”

This flabbergasted me. The immoral stupidity of such an absolutist rule can easily be demonstrated by performing a thought experiment and taking the logic of an “inviolate seal” to its logical extreme. Let’s say the confessor admits to the priest that he is planning to murder 1 billion people tomorrow with a doomsday device. If the Roman Catholic church still thinks it’s more important to keep the seal of the confessional inviolate than to prevent the death of 1 billion people, then I believe this is a reductio of the principle of the confession.

But, you might object, in order to make it a genuine confession, the confessor must genuinely repent, and you can’t really repent if you consciously plan on committing the sin you are repenting for tomorrow. So it wouldn’t be a real confession. But we need only tweak our thought experiment. Imagine the confessor has a Jekyll and Hyde personality (realistically, this could be done through hypnosis or dissociative identity disorder) and it is the good personality confessing what he thinks the bad personality is going to do. The confessor says, “I am genuinely sorry for this, but I know that I am still going to set off that doomsday device tomorrow because I can’t help it”. Would the seal of the confession still be inviolate? If so, then I think I have provided a reductio of the principle, since it seems obviously absurd to value the principle of the seal over the lives of 1 billion people (or 10 billion, it doesn’t matter for purposes of the thought experiment). Derek Parfit calls this the “Law of Large Numbers”. When you deal with extremely large numbers of lives, then “common sense” moral principles tend to wither under the pressure. If you really considered yourself a moral person, and you believed in a moral God, then surely you would reason that it’s more just to violate the seal and save 1 billion people. Upholding the rule for the sake of upholding the rule is immoral if you cannot give a justification that outweighs the prima facie reasonableness of saving 1 billion lives.

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In Defense of Atheism and Against Agnosticism: A Response to Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting recently posted an article to the NY Times philosophy column “The Stone” in which he had this to say:

Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

I’m quite familiar with these “agnosticism is more rational than atheism” arguments. I usually find the proponents of these arguments to be insufferable in their quest to prove agnosticism a superior philosophy to that of atheism, a more “juvenile” or “arrogant” position put forward only by the philosophically naive (Dawkins, etc).

Gutting seems to suggest that because sensible people report some kind of direct awareness of a divine being and because theologians have found ways of rationalizing these experiences, this lends credence to the supposition that agnosticism is the preferable stance insofar as we can’t “reject the [supernatural] hypothesis out of hand”. But this begs the question against the possibility of giving an overwhelming empirical explanation of exactly why and how religious hallucinations are possible.

Let’s say we have two competing explanations of the religious experience of “direct awareness of a divine being”. The first explanation is based on a naturalistic metaphysics. It starts from the expansion of the universe, the formation of stars, galaxies, planets, organisms, mammals, apes, and humans, etc. It tells this story in exquisite detail, with all the gory details filled in how the brain evolved over time. At some point in history, a side effect of human brain evolution was the advent of auditory hallucination wherein we experienced our dead ancestors, friends, deities, and demons talking to us. The naturalistic explanation thus explains the origin of “divine awareness” in terms of how the hallucination of divine authorities projected from the subconscious mind had some kind of adaptive power. Scientists are now able to experimentally induce the experience of a “divine being” by magnetically stimulating certain parts of the temporal cortex with a so-called “God Helmet“.

The second explanation is the supernatural explanation, which suggests that the best explanation of why we seem to experience immaterial realities and impossible experiences of divine beings is that there actually are divine beings and immaterial realities. Think about the logic of this for a second. This would be like saying the best explanation of why dreams are magical is that dreams actually are magical, as opposed to simply being the result of the brain being in an altered state of consciousness. It substitutes complete explanatory power for zero explanatory power. We can induce subjective experience of supernatural entities with magnetic stimulation, but the best explanation of what actually causes the experiences is that there actually are supernatural entities? Unless someone can put forward a non question-begging argument as to why induced experiences are different than “real” divine experiences, the supernaturalistic explanation seems to simply fly in the face of the well established  rationality of scientific metaphysics.

Philosophers seem to think that religious experiences are based on logical speculations about necessary beings. On the contrary, the first gods were crude auditory hallucinations. Look at the book of Amos. God is experienced as a thunderous booming voice:

“The LORD roars from Zion

and thunders from Jerusalem;

the pastures of the shepherds dry up,

and the top of Carmel withers.”

If you look at the subjective reports of these “direct experiences of divinity” and compare them with the reports of schizophrenic auditory verbal hallucination, the similarities are striking. For example, 20 year old schizophrenic Tobas reports:

I felt the Lord in me. This is when the voices began. At first they were only whispers, but then louder, but still soft. It was Jesus speaking to me. He would tell me what to do and ask me questions. Jesus would speak to me alone and no one else. Then I became a backslider. The Devil started talking to me. (He was unable to imitate the voice of the Devil) The devil told me bad things. He told me to kill myself. The Devil just wouldn’t leave me alone because I was a backslider.

These are the experiential grounds for Gutting’s “preference” for agnosticism. What are we supposed to make of the prevalence of auditory hallucinations in nonpsychotics, of the prevalence of hallucinated playmates in childhood, of the prevalence of voice hearing in the homeless and even in nonverbals? Naturalistic metaphysics theoretically has an explanation for all of this. Supernatural explanations of such phenomena barely make sense and certainly aren’t capable of producing theories such that prediction and control of the phenomena become possible (as with naturalistic metaphysics).

I have one last point. Gutting says:

It follows that [atheists] have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

Gutting makes a familiar move here against the atheist. He makes it such that the atheist is said to “deny” the existence of God, that is, to say “there is no God and I am 100%” positive of this because of such and such arguments”. This is not my understanding of atheism. I am, strictly speaking, an agnostic atheist. That is, someone who lacks a belief in god (a-theist) but does not claim “there is no God and I am sure of it”. For all I know, Deism is an open possibility. But I can’t think of a good reason why the pathetic scribblings of human theologians and metaphysicians would accurately represent anything about this supposed Deist-God that exists “outside” the natural universe. In this respect, we can say that agnostic atheism is the “preferred” stance for all possible gods, but given the naturalistic explanation of human religious experience, atheism is preferable in respect to particular deities hallucinated by the faithful. And moreover, since agnostic atheism is itself a properly respectable a-theism (lacking all positive endorsement of the claim “supernatural deities exist”), we can say that atheism in general is preferable over agnosticism.

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The God That Is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology

One of the great unanswered questions of science is why belief in gods is so ubiquitous in human societies past and present. Why is our species naturally inclined towards believing in the reality of the spiritworld? And the experience of this spiritworld is not just an abstract theoretical “belief” based on some “intentional stance”, but rather, an essential component of many peoples’ fundamental reality-map i.e. how the cosmos is meaningfully parsed. Where do spirits and gods come from? What is the neurological substrate for these experiential realities? Many theorists would like to answer these questions without invoking any notion of altered states of consciousness.  But as archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce rightly point out in their book Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods, “Complex human consciousness is not an ‘optional’ extra that archeologists can ignore. The assumption that all human behavior can be accounted for on rational, ecological or adaptive grounds is unwarranted: extracting the means of daily material life from the environment is not always an entirely ‘rational’ matter’.”

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am a big fan of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, especially when it comes to explaining religious phenomena. Accordingly, I was shocked to find that Lewis-Williams and Pearce failed to cite Jaynes despite their book being focused on how hallucinatory and altered states of consciousness played a large role in spurning the development of complex Neolithic civilization. This is, of course, a Jaynesian thesis. But I take this in stride. The fact that the impeccable research of  Lewis-Williams and Pearce independently comes to strikingly similar conclusions as Jaynes is strong evidence that bicameralism is more or less true, or at least highly corroborated.

For those who don’t know, bicameralism says that before the development of modern consciousness there was a preconscious mentality wherein voluntary will was underwritten by a totally different neural control mechanism. Instead of going “offline” and narratizing alternatives to behavior through conscious, articulate reasoning, the bicameral mind was unconsciously controlled by internal voices. As Jaynes puts it, “volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” We see evidence of this ancient control structure in modern schizophrenic command hallucinations wherein the person is assaulted by admonitory voices who issue condemnatory judgments and behavioral commands. The difference between an ancient voice-hearer and a modern one is that the modern person has developed a voluntary consciousness which can resist the hallucinated instructions and think more or less independently (until the power of the voices becomes overwhelming and they finally give in and obey). In ancient man, there was no option of disobedience. Our original relationship of gods was that of unremitting obedience. It wasn’t until we ate from the Tree of Knowledge that our original union with the gods was split.

Why were these gods so powerful? Why did they appear to humans as all-knowing and all-wise? Because the gods were housed in the vast network that constitutes the unconscious mind. The cognitive unconscious was completely in charge. Until recently, modern humans were under the delusion that consciousness constitutes the entire mental economy. Now we know however that consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg. Compared to the virtual serial machine that is our consciousness, the cognitive unconscious is automatic, fast, and emotional. It can synthetically process huge amounts of context-sensitive information without breaking a sweat. Accordingly, the gods were experienced as all-powerful precisely because in comparison with the pitiful resources available to the “human” complex, the god-complex was infinitely more wise. The gods within us were able to look at the totality of the situation and process action-oriented meaning in relation to a larger context. This generates the experiential component of omniscience when “experiencing God”.

Moreover, bicameral theory is poised to naturalize the mystical experience of  God and the feeling of oneness, unity, and the breakdown of subject/object thinking. In the metastable flux that is mystical union, the autobiographical self – our narrative mind – drops out and we are thrown into the other-referential networks of allocentric processing which more or less resonate to the “whatness” of reality. In neurological terms, we can speculate that the dorsal-parietal self-referential networks of body ownership phase out and the ventral-temporal networks of whatness amplify. This ventral stream is associated with other-referential processing and object-recognition. Moreover, the temporal lobe system is capable of parsing context out of messy variables, synthesizing oodles of information into a unified whole which can be then transferred to other areas of the brain in terms of action-commands.

What’s interesting about the temporal lobes is that the left temporal lobe is the seat of language whereas the corresponding areas in the right temporal lobe don’t seem to be as highly specialized.But Jaynes thought that the corresponding right temporal areas did have an important function, otherwise it would be devoted to making the critical skill of language bilaterally redundant (as with all other important brain functions). What then is the function of the right temporal cortex? Jaynes hypothesized that “The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods”. Indeed, this god-language is the source of the auditory hallucinations which once guided our ancestors in times of stress and crutch decision making and still guide/judge/order people today who suffer from florid schizophrenic symptoms.

It was these gods that commanded the kings and god-stewards to build great monuments. And the kings became gods themselves after death, with their subjects hallucinating their voices in terms of commands e.g. the command to build a magnificent burial tomb, to mummify, bathe, feed, and give gifts for sustenance in the after-life. Indeed, in the following relief we can see the god Shirruma guiding King Tudhaliya’s hand:
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Bicameralism understands this relief to depict a story of hallucinatory self-regulation. And look at this scene:

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The Egyptian god Khnum is forming the future king with his right hand along with his spirit-twin, the Ka, with his left hand. The Ka was a spiritual double that was born with every man and survived his death. For Jaynes, the Ka is representative of the bicameral, linguistically grounded god-function. The verbal function of the Ka is suggested by how it is pointing to its mouth in the above picture. The Ka essentially functioned as an ancient form of conscience. It guided the man through commands and suggestions experienced as auditory verbal hallucinations. Vestigial evidence of this function can be seen in the ubiquity of imaginary companions in children today and the surprisingly high prevalence of auditory verbal hallucination in both psychotics and nonpsychotics.

Moreover, when the neural power of the bicameral voices began to fade as bureaucracy and written language took over as the dominant method of social-control (e.g. Hammurabi’s code), the gods were no longer able to provide immediate guidance. New means of contacting the subliminal gods was needed. The flight of the gods necessitated the development of prayer, shamanic trance rituals, idol worship, divination, sortilege (casting lots), oracles, and the list goes on. Almost all modern religious phenomena can be explained within the context of bicameral theory. I am aware of no other theory can provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for understanding both the origin and development of religion and the vestigial traits of our theocratic ancestry in the form of schizophrenic verbal hallucinations and modern religious phenomena.

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The Fallacies of Faith

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