Committed believers should be embarrassed by the various arguments philosophers make for the existence of God, as most are fallacious sophistries. A recent article in Philosophy Now magazine by William Lane Craig helpfully summarizes eight of them for us.(1) (In what follows I summarize Craig’s summary, so if you want to pursue any of them further, more research is advised.)
First we need to know what these arguments mean by the term “God.” An excellent definition is given by Richard Swinburne:
By a ‘God’ [a theist] understands something like a ‘person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.’(2)
['God' means] a person without a body (i.e., a spirit), present everywhere, the creator and sustainer of the universe, a free agent, able to do everything (i.e. omnipotent), knowing all things, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation, immutable, eternal, a necessary being, holy, and worthy of worship.(3)
Such a being is sometimes called the Personal OmniGod, as He (the OmniGod is most often referred to as male) is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (present everywhere) and omni-benevolent (all-good).(4) For Craig, who writes approvingly of a renaissance of Christian philosophy, this is what the term “God” means.
In the first of his eight arguments Craig says that God is the best explanation of why anything at all exists. The existence of the universe, the totality of spacetime reality, he says, is analogous to a ball, a human-made object, in the woods. As one wants to know how the ball came to be there, so one wonders how the universe came to be. But the two are not analogous. We recognize the human-made object against the background, the surrounding context, of a natural environment that is not human made. The universe does not have a surrounding context, as it is by definition all that exists. Hence, the analogy fails.
In argument 2 Craig asserts that God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe. The universe must have had a beginning, he says, and he wants to know what brought the universe into being. He argues for a cause “outside the universe itself.” But (a) there can be nothing outside the universe itself because by definition the universe is all that exists; and (b) there can be no cause before the beginning of the universe, because the concept before the beginning is self-contradictory. The beginning is “a spacetime boundary,” as Craig says, meaning that it is the beginning of time itself. There can be no before, because if there were it would mean that what we took to be the beginning was not in fact the beginning. It is meaningless to assert a cause prior to time itself.
Argument 3 asserts that the uncanny applicability of mathematics to the physical world requires us to assume a divine creator. Perhaps so; I do not have an explanation. But even if mathematics is a reflection of ideas in the mind of God, we have no warrant to assume that such a God has any personal interest in our lives. Indeed, mathematics is the epitome of impersonality, being the same for every competent practitioner.
In argument 4 Craig contends that the fine-tuning for life of the various constants and arbitrary quantities found in the universe is so highly improbable that they must have been put into place by intelligent design. This contention is a variant of the Anthropic Principle, that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it.(5) Some, Craig included, think that the improbability of the universe being just so indicates that something other than mere chance is at work. The idea seems plausible, but there are several objections.
First, the probability of the universe being exactly as we find it to exist is 100%. The concept of probability applies only to the future, which has not yet taken place. It is fallacious to apply it to the present.
Second, we can certainly imagine ourselves at some point in the past considering the probability of the present being what it is, and its probability would indeed be quite tiny. But if what is now present had become something else, the probability of that alternate present from the point of view of the past would be equally tiny, and its probability from the point of view of the alternate present itself would be equally 100%. The odds against each of the many possible universes are equally astronomical, yet one of them must be the actual universe. No matter how the present turns out we have no need to posit a supernatural intelligent designer to account for it.
Third, that we are alive and able to observe the universe shows merely that we are the result of a sort of selection bias: only in a universe capable of supporting life will there be living beings who can observe any such fine tuning. As such, it is entirely unremarkable that we find the universe’s fundamental constants to be within the narrow range compatible with life.
In argument 5 Craig asserts the God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness, that is of mind. “Intentionality” is a philosophical term for the “aboutness” of being conscious, that when we are conscious we are always conscious of something, and when we think we always think about something. There is no need to posit God as an explanation for this state of affairs. Craig’s argument merely rehashes the mind-body problem. He assumes that mind and body are two separate categories of existence, and hence he needs a theistic assumption to unite them. A different metaphysical assumption, panpsychism, assumes that everything has both an aspect of objectivity and an aspect of subjectivity; hence it is not at all surprising that intentional states of consciousness exist. The relevant argument is between dualism and panpsychism, not between theism and atheism.
In argument 6 Craig asserts that God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties. But there is reason to believe that moral values and duties do not exist objectively in the way physical objects and perhaps mathematical objects do but are instead socially constructed. If they don’t exist independently of us, there is no need to posit a theistic explanation for them. The relevant discussion is about the nature of morality, not about theism and atheism.
In argument 7 Craig restates Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, that we must conceive of God as existing because (a) God is the greatest conceivable being and (b) an existent being is greater than a non-existent being, so (c) we must conceive of God as existing. The ontological argument fails to consider, however, that what we can conceive does not determine what actually exists. To say that we must conceive of God as existing is to assert something about our conception, not about what exists apart from our conception. (There is much more to be said about Anselm’s argument. See Wallace, “The Ontological Argument,” for a good summary.)
Six of the eight arguments are totally fallacious, and one, argument 3, implies at best an impersonal deity, not a Personal OmniGod. That leaves argument 8.
Argument 8 is the only one that makes any sense for the existence of the OmniGod as traditionally conceived: a being who is all-powerful, omniscient, all-good and external to us but intimate enough to care about us. If you have an experience of such a God, says Craig, then you are justified in believing in God. For the person who has had a personal experience of God, arguments such as one through seven are at best intriguing intellectual puzzles. But for one who has not had a personal experience of God, even argument 8, as Craig himself notes, is no argument at all.
Please note that the fact that you can’t prove the existence of a Personal OmniGod does not prove that such a being does not exist. Absence of proof for something is not proof of its absence.(6) The arguments against the existence of God also fail, but that is a topic for another time. So a Personal OmniGod might indeed exist.
But the idea seems chimerical. There are numerous objections, and even though theologians have concocted answers to them they seem to have intuitive force. If God is all-powerful, can He make an object too heavy for Him to lift? If God is all-benevolent, why does He allow such evils as genocide and mass starvation in His world? And so on.(7) To the believer, these objections are as useless as the alleged proofs are to the unbeliever.
We all, believers and unbelievers alike, want intellectual coherence. If you have had experiences that lead you to believe that a Higher Power exists, manifests itself in a person-like way, and has some benevolent interest in you, then you have some right to believe these things. But that Higher Power need not be conceived as a Personal OmniGod; it could be conceived as the organic will of an animated universe.
Craig says “For those who listen, God becomes a personal reality in their lives.” A more useful question than these intellectual puzzles would be how to tell, when you hear a voice that seems to come from God, whether it really does so or is merely a delusion.
(1) Craig, “Does God Exist?”
(2) Swinburne, page 1.
(3) Swinburne, page 2.
(4) See, for instance, Wikipedia, “Omnibenevolence;” Kulikovsky; and Sutherland.
(5) Wikipedia, “Anthropic principle.”
(6) Wikipedia, “Argument from ignorance.”
(7) Harrison, “Arguments for and against the Existence of God.”
Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” In Philosophy Now magazine, Issue 99, November/December 2013, pp. 6-9. Online publication http://philosophynow.org/issues/99/Does_God_Exist as of 27 February 2014. Archived at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Craig_DoesGodExist.pdf.
Harrison, Paul. “Arguments for and against the Existence of God.” In F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels). Online publication http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/GODEXIST.html as of 3 March 2014.
Kulikovsky, Andrew S. “God’s ‘omni’ Attributes.” Online publication http://hermeneutics.kulikovskyonline.net/hermeneutics/omni.pdf as of 28 February 2014.
Sutherland, Mike. “The ‘omnis’ of god.” Online publication http://www.christian-apologetics-resources-and-education.com/God-Is-Omni.html as of 28 February 2014.
Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 1993.
Wallace, Meg. “The Ontological Argument.” Online publication http://www.unc.edu/~megw/OntologicalArg.html as of 28 February 2014.
Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle as of 3 March 2014.
Wikipedia. “Argument from ignorance.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance as of 3 March 2014.
Wikipedia. “Omnibenevolence.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnibenevolence as of 28 February 2014.
For the past nine years I have been employed by Dell, a large American corporation best known for building and selling a variety of computer products. (Dell also provides information technology services and consulting to others, but I was not involved in that part of the business.) I am now leaving Dell’s employ. I am quitting my day job, as it were, the better to pursue my interest in philosophy.
Working in a large enterprise in which the efforts of many people have to be coordinated in order to get things done has given me the opportunity to see the unique human virtue, our capacity for second-order thinking, in action.
By “virtue” I do not mean obedience to moral rules, as in “The Sunday school teacher is quite virtuous.” Instead I mean what the Classical Greeks called arete, translated as “virtue,” but also as “effectiveness” or “excellence,” excellence in performing one’s function. For instance, the excellence of a computer manufacturer is to build computers that are themselves excellent, that work smoothly, process data rapidly, are easy to use and last a long time without needing repairs. An excellent basketball player runs fast, shoots baskets accurately and works with his or her teammates to achieve victory. An excellent teacher imparts knowledge skillfully, and an excellent student learns quickly. These are all examples – and there are many more – of people and things fulfilling their functions and doing so well. To be an excellent human being, then, means to do well what humans do.
So what is it that humans do well? One thing is to think. We have bigger brains relative to body size than other animals and a greater capacity to envisage possible futures and make plans to achieve our goals. Certainly our skills at strategizing long-term goals and planning and executing projects are crucial for success in business, and Dell’s success over the years is a result of good thinking.
But our capacity to think is not unique to humans. Other animals also think, though none (as far as we can tell) so well as we do. What really distinguishes us from other living beings is a further skill: second-order thinking.
By “second order,” I mean the ability to take ourselves as objects of thought. The first order is to think about things in the world external to us, to plan and execute our plans “out there,” as it were. We can think of where the animals are and go hunt them. We can devise complicated computing machines and figure out how to manufacture them in great quantities quickly and efficiently. When we turn that capacity for foresight and analysis to ourselves we engage in second-order thinking. We have the ability to reflect on ourselves, to be conscious of and think about ourselves as well as the world we live in. It’s what the Delphic oracle recommended: Know Thyself.
I saw this ability in action at Dell. I was struck by something that Rhonda Gass, our IT Director at the time, once said in an all-hands meeting:
- We see what needs to be done.
- We get after it.
- We get it done.
- We see the results.
Seeing what needs to be done and accomplishing it are things that many kinds of animals do, although humans do them far more elaborately. It is the last step that sets us apart. I take seeing the results to mean not only enjoying the fruits of our labors and having a pleasant sense of accomplishment, but also seeing what went well and what didn’t and using that knowledge to do our task better the next time. The results we see include information that allows us to reflect on what we have done with an eye toward improvement.
The methodology for process improvement has been formalized in industrial settings, most famously in W. Edwards Deming’s “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle.(1) Plan means to establish what you want to accomplish and how. Do means to carry out the plan, and collect measurements on what happened. Check means to study the results and compare what actually happened to what you wanted. Act (some people now call this step Adjust) means to implement corrective actions to reduce the gap between what happens and what is desired.
My interest in this process is philosophical, in the sense of philosophy as love of wisdom. What if you applied this type of thinking to your life? On a personal, or idiosyncratic, level, you would first find out what you are good at, such as getting along with people, perhaps, or analyzing numbers or building things or any number of talents that people have. On a generic level, the level of you as a member of the human species rather than you as an individual, you would investigate topics such as how your cognition works and what causes it to go awry, how your emotions work and what they tell you about yourself and your world, how second-order thinking works and so forth. On both levels, the idiosyncratic and the generic, you would follow a similar process: Observe what you do and how it is working out. Think of ways to do it better. Try out the new approach. Observe how that works. Repeat these steps until you are satisfied enough to go on to something else.
Not that this is always an easy task. Sometimes it requires a lot of introspective work and the aid of trusted friends and counselors. But the capacity for self-reflection and self-improvement is what distinguishes humans from other animals. When we do them well, we exhibit excellence at being human. Philosophy at its best is about what it is to be an excellent human being and thereby live a fulfilling life; and that is what I discuss in my book, How To Be An Excellent Human.
I have seen Dell exhibit corporate excellence, and the company encourages personal excellence as well. Where else would you find a Vedika (knowledge-sharing) session on “Leading The Self”? The company certainly provided a venue for me to exercise my talents. For instance, I like writing, and I got to do a lot of it in my job. I would often get absorbed in writing and lose track of time, which was always gratifying.
My work would go in phases. Recently I had a bit of a lull, which often happens around the holidays at mid-winter (northern hemisphere). The devil makes work for idle hands, they say, so to avoid that fate I convened an ad-hoc “skunk works” committee to standardize a process that was being done differently by different teams. (A standard process makes for better metrics, which in turn make for easier process improvement.) It was fun. We accomplished a lot in a short time, I got to exercise leadership, the results very rapidly got up to the Director level, and we got a lot of praise for our work. It was a great opportunity to exert human excellence. And it felt good, even exhilarating. That is a characteristic of functioning well, by the way, that it feels good to do so, which is why the Greek word eudaimonia, the outcome of functioning well, is sometimes translated as “happiness.”
There are other things I enjoyed at Dell. Dell is a great place for someone like me, who enjoys accomplishing things. The company has a well-deserved reputation for demanding a lot of its employees, but the upside is that a lot is achieved. I liked the sense of camaraderie, of belonging to a team and working toward a common goal. We humans developed our big brains and our shared culture in tribal groups whose members cooperated with each other while competing with other groups. We have an ingrained need to pull for the common good, and a large enterprise is a good place to fulfill that need. Dell is proudly inclusive of many different kinds of people, people of different religions, races, nationalities, gender preferences and more; and its diversity makes it an endlessly interesting place to work. Dell has a strong sense of ethics, and I was happy that I did not have to compromise or submerge my own principles.
I also liked working for a company whose overarching goal is benign. We can apply self-reflective second-order thinking to evaluate not only our immediate goal but also the context in which the immediate goal is being pursued, and I was happy with Dell’s overall goal. My immediate goal was to collect information, write a Software Requirements Specification document and get it approved. That document served a larger goal of building or enhancing some software. That software serves a larger goal of getting more efficient at building computers and shipping them to customers. And the goal of providing computers is to improve people’s lives by enabling them to accomplish their own goals. Computers empower us to do all sorts of things we were not able to do before. (We can write blogs, for instance.) Indeed, Dell’s marketing slogan is “The power to do more.”
Of course, the overall goal is also to make a profit. What is at issue here is what the enterprise does in order to earn its revenue. Dell’s overall goal is fairly benign. Were I to work for a company whose goal or whose methods for achieving it were not so benign – Monsanto, for instance, whose corporate image is quite admirable, but which does brutal things to small farmers in its pursuit of market domination – I would have to spend some psychic energy to ignore the overall goal and immerse myself in the immediate one. I was happy that I did not have to do that at Dell. (Note to my political friends of all persuasions: I am deliberately not addressing the even larger economic and political context – global capitalism, regulations or lack thereof by nation-states, etc. – within which Dell operates. That topic is a bit too much for now.)
I don’t want to present too rosy a picture. Dell has its share of inefficiencies, troubled projects, management confusion, people who are less than optimally competent and the like. And, no doubt, other companies promote excellence as well. It’s just that Dell is the one I know best. As I write this Dell is changing directions, and it remains to be seen whether it can maintain its success in the marketplace. But as long as it fosters human excellence, it stands a good chance. I wish my former colleagues all the best.
(1) Wikipedia, “PDCA.”
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://www.bmeacham.com.
Wikipedia. “PDCA.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA as of 30 December 2013.
I have argued for Panpsychism, the idea that the universe is alive or at least that each element of the universe is alive enough to have some minimal awareness of its surroundings. If so, then one way to understand the fundamental elements of the universe is on the model of our own experience. The tiniest actual occasion is structurally similar to a moment of rich human experience, albeit in a primitive, attenuated form. If that is the case, then it would be useful to find out just what is involved in human experience. To understand the subjectivity of the activities and processes that make up the world, we can start by examining our own subjectivity.
I did that several years ago. I conducted a research project on my own experience and wrote it up for my Ph.D. dissertation. I have now made the results of that investigation available on my website. It is way too long for a blog post, so I have posted the whole paper here: http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Dissertation/index.html.
The paper will be most useful if it encourages you to examine your own experience and your own life. Let me know what you find out.
The universe, as they say, gave me an opportunity recently to read a couple of books on Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. (Why we seem to want to personalize such events and attribute agency to them is a topic for another time.) A few years ago I had traveled to Uzbekistan and seen for myself the land in which Zoroastrianism first arose, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn more. This essay is a summary and interpretation of what I found out. Don’t take it as an authoritative account of Zarathustra’s teachings; it’s just an account of some things that seemed noteworthy to me.
Nobody knows for sure quite where Zarathustra lived or quite when he taught, but his origin may well have been in the Khorezm region of what is now Uzbekistan, near the western end of the great Eurasian steppe.(1) The region is dry and dusty. The once mighty Amu Darya river, known to the Greeks as the Oxus, is just a brown trickle. In Zarathustra’s time the region was no doubt wetter and more fertile, as the massive Soviet diversions of water for irrigation were far in the future.(2) Zarathustra’s culture was nomadic and pastoral, and his circumstances seem to have been modest. In one of his hymns, he prays that God will reward him with a mere ten mares, a stallion and a camel.(3)
Zarathustra is appropriately called the First Prophet. He spoke of themes later to be found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: a single universal God, the battle between good and evil, the devil, heaven and hell, and an eventual end to the world. He addressed a people who venerated fire and worshipped the ancestral deities of the Indo-Europeans, a host of gods, demons and spirits. In contrast, he proclaimed some radical ideas:(4)
- There is only one God, not a host of them. God is named Ahura Mazda, roughly “Lord Who Is Wise,” and is a god of goodness.
- All the other gods and deities that people worship are merely attributes, partial glimpses, of Ahura Mazda. Evil deities such as the spirits of war, destruction and greed are reflections of humanity’s baser tendencies. None of them are to be worshipped.
- The source of goodness in the world is Asha, often rendered as “truth”, “reality” or “righteousness.”
- The source of evil in the world is the Lie (Druj), untruth or deception. Later personified as a supernatural being, Angra Mainyu, the concept seems at first to have been of an abstract principle. Angra Mainyu means a mind or mentality (mainyu) that is destructive or malign (angra).(5)
- Each individual has a free choice between good and evil. Following the path of goodness leads to happiness in this life, and following the path of the Lie leads to destruction. In addition, there will be a happy existence after death for those who follow goodness and an unhappy existence for those who do not.
Zarathustra denounced the practice of animal sacrifice as cruel, opposed the ritual use of the plant haoma (the soma of the Rig Veda in India), and did not preach the adoration of fire. In other words, he rejected the religion and rituals of his time, and he thereby earned the scorn and hostility of his priests and his ruling princes and warriors. He was denounced, expelled from his community, cut off from his family and clan and forced into exile. He traveled to Balkh, in today’s Afghanistan, where he found a warmer reception and became the court priest, living out his days in peace.(6)
After Zarathustra’s death, elements of the old religion came creeping back. Deities became more prominent and the use of haoma was reinstated, as was the ancient cult of fire, a tradition that continues to this day. By the sixth century B.C. the religion of Ahura Mazda had become the official state religion of Persia. Interrupted by the defeat of Persia by Alexander of Macedonia (one hesitates to call “Great” such a ruthless megalomaniac), the religion had a resurgence after Alexander’s empire broke apart, but became more and more ossified and rigid, with a proliferation of rules, a complicated set of purity laws and severe persecution of those who failed to obey.(7) After the Arabs took over in the seventh century and Islam became the official religion, the religion of Zarathustra gradually waned, living on today in communities of Parsees (Persians) in India and in scattered places throughout the rest of the world.
So why study it, if it is so obscure? Because some of its foundational concepts are still of great relevance.
Consider Asha, variously translated as “reality” and “truth.”(8) According to Dr. Jenny Rose, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, “Asha can be translated as ‘order’ or ‘arranged in cosmic cohesion,’ and thus ‘right’ in the sense of ‘as it should be.’”(9) The ancients blurred the distinction between reality, truthful statements about what reality is, and normative statements about what reality ought to be, but the point is that according to this conception there is an order or cohesion to what is real. If we could discern that order and live in harmony with it, our lives would be good, that is, fulfilled and happy.
And we can indeed discern that order, because it is seen in the biological systems that surround us and in which we live. Zarathustra recognized and valued the ordered systems of nature, which promote growth and well-being. He says, “He who cherishes Thy Way with the Good Mind is himself a promoter of abundance and prosperity.”(10) Professor Rose comments,
The good thoughts, words and actions of the ashavan [one who adheres to Asha] lead to blessings, increase, peace, wholeness and continuity of life for the individual, the community, and the land. In pursuing this course, the ashavan is emulating the increase-producing activity of Ahura Mazda, who brings benefits to the highest degree, expressed in the epithet spento.toma, ‘most beneficial’.(11)
The language here is all in what I call the Goodness Paradigm, which evaluates courses of actions in terms of observable benefits and harms rather than adherence to moral rules.(12) Zarathustra embraced what we now call Permaculture: the observation and mimicry of natural systems to create abundance.(13) The ethically good choice, the choice that promotes human flourishing, is to live in harmony with how nature works. Care for the elements – later Zoroastrianism had rules for civic hygiene and against pollution of the waters – prefigures our modern concern with healthy ecology.(14)
The opposite, interestingly, is not disharmony but the Lie (Druj), a deception or misrepresentation of reality that renders one incapable of making good choices. Unlike the Vedic morality of India in which the opposite of order is merely its absence, and unlike the Classical Greek belief that it is just ignorance that causes us to make bad choices, the evil portrayed in the earliest Zoroastrian scriptures is a forceful expression of ill will. The dregvant (one who adheres to Druj) actively chooses evil thoughts, words and actions, perpetuating cruelty, violence, ill treatment and acts of wrath and oppression.(15) Lots of things cause harm – natural disasters, wild animals, disease and so forth – but what is truly evil is the deliberate human intention to cause harm. The Lie destroys trust and tears apart the fabric of community. What’s worse, the liar becomes incapable of perceiving and acting on what is truly good, good for him (or her) as well as everyone else.
Again, the basis of ethics is the observed consequences of one’s actions. The Zoroastrian religion soon enough became full of laws and prohibitions, but the earliest insights are just common sense, couched in the desire of Ahura Mazda for human welfare. Good thoughts, good words and good deeds (humata, hukhta and hvareshta) are what is good for human beings.(16) And, by the way, notice that it starts with good thoughts. “As you think, so shall you become” is nothing new.(17)
The cosmology of Zoroastrianism is a standard dualist view of good versus evil. In the earliest writings, Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, is the source and creator of everything. Angra Mainyu, destructive mentality, is something like a deficiency or perversity that causes the good mentality, Spenta Mainyu, to be deceived. Later, Angra Mainyu is raised to the status of an independent being who is opposed to the Wise Lord; in other words, Satan as opposed to God. There are various theological interpretations of these two beings, disputes about which have unfortunately been the cause of wars and persecutions. Is the Devil an independent being, co-equal with God? Is God the supreme creator and the Devil one of the creatures, albeit a particularly powerful one? In either case, the world we live in is seen as a battleground in which one must choose sides.
But there is another conception, rooted in an ancient mysticism of the steppe: that both Good and Evil, God and the Devil, have their source in unity. According to researcher Tohir Karim of the Tashkent University in Uzbekistan, it is Time (Zrvana) that is the underlying or originating force that makes possible both good and evil. To be clear, this concept does not appear in the Zoroastrian scriptures; Karim cites instead the legends and traditions of Khorezm.(18) He says
At the basis of all … is the image of time, the powerful force which organizes the system of objects and events in the material world, provides for the sequence of events, and sets the whole universe in motion. Even the gods are believed to be powerless before time, as the gods, too, are seen as only a product of time as it proceeds. … [Time] was considered to exist before the material world, outside of nature, and to set nature in motion …. Zrvana (Time) in the course of its progress initially created two spirits. They were not the creators of the universe, but the results of the efforts of the powerful Zrvana.(19)
There are two ideas of note here: that all is change, and that all is one.
Time, the ongoing succession of events, is what makes everything possible. Everything changes from moment to moment. This notion of constant change echoes Heraclitus and prefigures the modern process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. What is ultimately real is not substance, but process. We, the living, are not anomalies in a fundamentally dead universe. We are elaborations of a life that extends down to the tiniest elements.
That Time generates all things also echoes the many strains of mysticism that assert a unity that underlies the plurality of manifestation that we live in every day: the Way of Taoism, the Brahman of Hinduism, the Original Mind of Buddhism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Oversoul, the Ein Sof of Jewish Kabbalah, the Godhood of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, the Gnostic All, the One Being of Sufism.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to explain mystical unity. Please refer to Chapters 11 through 13 of my book. I just want to examine one aspect of it. Typically the mystics say that both good and evil are aspects or manifestations of the One, and that the purpose of being human is to realize our unity with that One. It is a mistake, they say, to get caught up in dualistic struggle as if one side or the other were ultimately real. But if that is the case, why should we favor goodness over evil? If neither are the ultimate reality, why prefer one over the other?
Zarathustra suggests an answer: Because aligning yourself with the good gives you a better chance of experiencing oneness than not. You have to be alive to realize your mystical unity with the All, and it is the good that promotes life, not evil. Evil is ultimately self-destructive. (Of course I am extending Zoroastrian teachings here, which were religious and ethical, not mystical.)
What is good is analogous to light; and what is bad, or harmful, is analogous to darkness. If you live in darkness, you can’t see very well; your strategies are limited because of lack of information. They may be brutally effective for a while, but are ultimately self-defeating. It is more efficacious in the long run to live in the light, and it is much more pleasant as well. Light and dark endlessly alternate, it is true, and the alternation is all part of the whole. If you live in that knowledge, then you are enlightened. If you don’t, then turning toward the light will make it more likely that you will come to that realization.
If mysticism does not appeal to you, however, or even if you find the religious world view itself, mystical or not, distasteful or merely unlikely, the Zoroastrian ethic still makes abundant sense. Zarathustra espouses what I call the Goodness Ethic, which tells us how to live a happy, harmonious life: cultivate good thoughts, good words, and good actions.
(1) Karim, pp. 201-204.
(2) Wikipedia, “Amu Darya.”
(3) Kriwaczek, p. 212. The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra, 44:18.
(4) Ibid., p. 2013.
(5) Wikipedia, “Angra Mainyu.”
(6) Kriwaczek, pp. 213-214.
(7) Ibid., pp. 217-219.
(8) Wikipedia, “Asha.”
(9) Rose, p. 9.
(10) The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra, 49:5.
(11) Rose., p. 17.
(12) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”
(13) Michael, “What Is Permaculture?”
(14) Rose, p. 18.
(16) Ibid., p. 17.
(17) Bruce Lee. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/381647-as-you-think-so-shall-you-become as of 22 November 2013.
(18) Karim, p. 185-186.
(19) Ibid., pp. 210-211.
Karim, Tohir. Traces of the Sacred Avesta. Tashkent: Gafur Guliam, 2007.
Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://bmeacham.com.
Michael, Patricia. “What Is Permaculture?” Online publication http://patriciamichaeldesign.com/WhatIsPermaculture.htm as of 22 November 2013.
Rose, Jenny. Zorastrianism, An Introduction. London. and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011.
The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra. Tr. D.J. Irani. Online publication http://www.zarathushtra.com/z/gatha/dji/The%20Gathas%20-%20DJI.pdf as of 20 November 2013.
Wikipedia. “Amu Darya.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amu_Darya as of 20 November 2013.
Wikipedia. “Angra Mainyu.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angra_Mainyu as of 20 November 2013.
Wikipedia. “Asha.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asha as of 21 November 2013.
My daughter died recently. In this essay I tell the story of her death, not to evoke your sympathy or condolences or to induce you to feel sorry for me – although those things are perfectly normal responses – but because there is a philosophical point to be made. I had communication with her after her bodily death. I have reason to believe that I know some things about what happened to her and what she did after that event. In this essay I present the evidence for those startling assertions. Please reserve your judgment until you have read to the end.
Just the facts
On September 15, 2013, Katherine Claire Hiles (her name from a previous marriage) was driving west out of Nelson, British Columbia on Route 3A, a two-lane road, with her wife, Mireille Evans. At 3:26 p.m. about 15 kilometers from Nelson near the intersection with Curtis Road a vehicle crossed the center line and struck Katy’s car, killing her instantly. She was taken to a nearby hospital but could not be resuscitated. No alcohol or drugs were involved. Mireille was bruised and scratched, but otherwise physically unharmed. The other driver also sustained injuries, but lived. Police say that he does not remember what happened. At the last instant Katy turned her car to the right, taking the full brunt of the impact on herself and sparing Mireille. Police say that a trained race-car driver could not have avoided the collision. Katy’s death was immediate, and there is no reason to believe that she suffered any pain.
I did not find out about this until the next day, when some officials from the Texas Attorney General’s Office showed up at my door to tell me. I immediately called my wife, who hurried home, and we called a few friends.
Before I tell the rest of the story, I need to give some background about Katy. 31 years old at the time, she had been studying Native American spirituality for several years with a group of women in British Columbia. Specifically she studied the ways of the Lakota, in the tradition of Wallace Black Elk. Her teacher, Kat McCooeye, is a woman of Celtic, Huron and African ancestry who was raised by Native peoples in northern BC and who has been authorized in the lineage of Wallace Black Elk to teach the tradition. Katy was deeply committed to this path, very knowledgeable about its teachings and practices, and a member of a strong community of women and men who participated regularly in sweat lodges and other ceremonies.
An extraordinary communication
My wife had an appointment that day with a spiritual healer from Chile. I do not have permission to reveal the healer’s name (not that she has refused; I just haven’t asked, as she has gone back to Chile), so I will call her M. M speaks very little English, and our friend Casey translated. M had been told about Katy’s death and told me to come into the treatment room as well. There were thus four people present: M, Casey Bledsoe, Patricia Michael and I, Bill Meacham. Neither Patricia nor I had ever met M before.
M said Katy was in good hands, with a grandfather figure who was helping her through her surprise and confusion.
Now, unbeknownst to me, the previous day just after Katy’s death her lodge sisters had come to the hospital where Katy and Mireille had been taken. One of the women, Jessica Bamford, has told me that they could sense that Katy was still present and a bit confused. One of them said to her, “Katy, darling, you’re dead.” Katy replied, “Oh. That’s why I can see Grandpa.”
None of us in the treatment room had any knowledge that that exchange had taken place. Here are two entirely independent reports that Katy was in the presence of a grandfather figure after her body had died.
(By the way, I, as her father, am extremely grateful that she was greeted and cared for by a wise, competent elder male.)
M then said that Katy said something about running. M asked whether I had run with Katy when she was young. I was puzzled and said that we had climbed trees together, but had not run. M said no, there was something about running. Then I remembered a game I used to play with Katy when she was little, four, five and six years old or thereabouts, a game we called Run-Past. I would sit on the couch, and she would run past me as I tried to grab her. Of course I acted quite clumsy and failed most of the time, and she would shriek with laughter as she got away. Occasionally I would catch her and toss her around and nuzzle her, humorously saying I was going to eat the little girl. It was lots of fun.
There was no way M could have known that. There was no way Casey, our translator could have known that.
M then told me that Katy said she had gone first and that she had promised to take care of me when I died, but she had deceived me.
A year earlier, on a previous trip to Canada, I had talked to Katy about my own end of life. I told her that at some point I would most likely get old and die and that I wanted her to be with me when that happened. She said of course she would, but asked me please not to do it any time soon.
Now Katy was telling me that she was not going to care for me as I died. Again, there was no way that M, whom I had never met before, could have known about my conversation with Katy a year earlier, nor could Casey, whom I had not told about it.
Then Katy, through M, told Patricia some things and said that we would meet again. At the end, Katy said that she was trespassing for this brief time to talk to us, implying that she was breaking a rule against talking to those of us still in our physical bodies. The conversation with her ended.
How can we explain these messages that seem to have come from the dead? To me it is obvious that they were indeed messages from Katy, who was still alive in some form after her physical body died. Materialists deny the possibility of such a thing. They say that the mind is merely a byproduct of the brain, and when the brain dies one’s mind – one’s subjectivity, one’s personhood – dies with it. To maintain their view, I suppose, they would have to say that what I heard from M was coincidence or dissembling. That seems unlikely to me. Or that I am lying, which I’m not.
There is no way to know with the certainty that objective science gives us which interpretation is correct. And even if we grant that it is more likely that Katy really did talk to us after her physical death than that the healer somehow guessed what she had no way of knowing, that does not tell us for sure about anybody else’s death. We have only one data point, one communication that purports to come from beyond the physical world that science investigates so well. From this one data point we cannot confidently say that everyone lives on after physical death. Maybe only some people do. Katy had undergone rigorous training. Maybe only those with such training live on.
We can’t ethically do a replicable scientific experiment. We can’t pick a group of people who have had spiritual training and a control group who haven’t and kill them all suddenly and see which ones survive on the other side and in what way.
There is some additional evidence for the assertion that at least some people live on after physical death. There are numerous other stories like mine, of people who had physically died communicating with the living, revealing things that the person facilitating the communication could not have known. No doubt many such stories are the result of wishful thinking, delusion or outright charlatanry. But all of them? We could find fault with each one, but the likelihood of lots of people all coming up with the same falsehood seems slim.(1)
In any case, we do have objective verification of my story. Four people, Casey, Patricia, I and M herself, heard what M reported that Katy said. Katy’s mother and sister can verify that I used to play Run-Past with her. Patricia can verify that I had talked to Katy about my end of life. And we have two independent reports, separated in time by almost a day and in space by two thousand miles, of Katy’s being in the presence of a grandfather figure. I am not making this up.
What we have here is some data that contradict the materialistic dominant scientific paradigm.(2) I have speculated elsewhere about what might replace that paradigm(3), but discussing ontology is not my aim in this essay. My aim is just to tell the story and see what it might imply for us, the living.
What follows includes some things told to me by people in Katy’s lodge. I am inclined to believe what they say about her. Because M’s independent report of her being with a grandfather corroborates their testimony that they heard her say she could see Grandpa, I assume the truth of their other reports as well.
The rest of the story
I am extremely grateful, after I had received the shocking news from some guys I did not know, that Katy spoke to me and Patricia. I am completely convinced that she was there in some form, after her physical form was dead, to talk to us.
Patricia and I went up to Canada. There was a ceremony of washing the body, there was a cremation, there was a big public memorial and celebration of her life, all of which was helpful in dealing with our grief.
She died on a Sunday, and we got up there late on Wednesday. Earlier that day, four days after Katy’s death, the women and men in her lodge had done a ceremony and had prayed and sung sacred songs to help the soul pass on from its intermediate state to the next. They said that at that time Katy passed on and became a spirit, specifically an eagle spirit. The eagle is very important to her lodge and to the tradition of Wallace Black Elk. She had been learning the ways of the eagle; and on the fourth day, she became a spirit being in the form of an eagle.
Seven days after her death I participated in an inipi, a sweat lodge ceremony, at which Kat McCooeye was the water-pourer, the person who leads the ceremony. This was to have been Katy’s first time pouring water, the most important role in the ceremony. Katy usually tended the fire that heats the rocks. She wasn’t there, so I did that job.
The sweat lodge is found all over North and Central America. In Mexico it is a permanent structure made of stone, called temazcal. In the Lakota tradition it is a rounded hut made of saplings over which are draped blankets or animal skins. You kneel down to crawl in, then hot rocks are brought in from the fire, the door flap is closed, and you are in complete darkness. The leader pours water on the rocks, creating steam and making it very hot in there, beats on the drum, and leads the group in prayer and sacred songs. It’s very intense. My experience has been that in that extreme physical environment whatever is not essential in your mind goes away; and when you pray you speak from a very deep, authentic place in yourself.
There are several rounds, in between which they open the door. In the third round they sang songs to call in the spirits. Kat said that the eagle spirits would come in, and Katy would be among them. I waited with eager anticipation for some profound feeling or sensation, but none came. Then I saw in my mind’s eye her face, as if from a distance. That was nice; that was good.
We did that, we came home, and several days later our Sufi group had a chanting ceremony, called zikr. I typically drum for the zikr on my dumbek, and this evening I was deep into drumming while my friend played guitar and the group chanted various sacred phrases. I was absorbed, in a sort of trance, concentrating only on the drumming. I idly thought of Katy as an eagle; and I saw in my mind an eagle flying around, circling in the air. It circled closer and closer and then came and looked me right in the eye. Its eye was a golden yellow. It looked at me and then went on. At the time I didn’t think about it, but the next day it occurred to me that Katy was telling me, “Dad, I’m over here now. I’m in this form now.”
(And by the way, the eyes of a mature eagle are yellow.(4) I looked it up.)
In the sweat lodge, Kat had said “Katy is here. Katy says that she’s really happy, because she’s an eagle sprit and she gets to serve the people 24-7. She doesn’t have to sleep.”
So in the space of seven days Katy died instantly, was met by grandfather, learned what she needed to learn, became an eagle spirit, appeared in the sweat lodge, and expressed happiness at being able to be of continuous service. And later appeared to me in my semi-trance to reassure me that she was still around.
Well done, Katy!
I am astonished and delighted that she made the transition so quickly and smoothly, and to such a good place. And that her idea of a good time after death is to be of service continuously. She found herself an excellent gig! I am extraordinarily proud of that girl. She was prepared. She did it, impeccably.
I am proud of her. And, I can’t tell her that. She’s a spirit and I’m here. I am a mammal. I need touch. I want to hug my daughter and feel her and look her in the eye and tell her how proud I am of her. But I can’t do that. I am very grateful that she contacted us after her physical death and that I know what happened to her on the other side. I am simultaneously elated that she made such a spectacularly successful transition and heartbroken that she’s not here any more.
In the Phaedo Plato has Socrates say that the true philosopher should be cheerful in the face of death. “Those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are … preparing themselves for dying and death,” he says.(5) When I was an undergraduate I thought the idea quite morbid and unappealing, but now I see the wisdom in it. We probably can’t all go in such an elegant way as Katy, nor to such an elevated state of being. But it is plausible to think that we will all continue in some form after the physical body dies.
Just as there is a being who is you on this side, a subjective state of mind, a point of view that acts, so there will be a you on the other side. You won’t have all the physical stuff you have here. But you will have memories, feelings, attitudes, a point of view and your own way of being in the world, your own way of approaching and interacting with whatever surrounds you. Your world will be different, but you will be there. What qualities of character would help you in that condition? You’ll still be you. What kind of person would you like to be?
Appendix: How I deal with it emotionally
One of my teachers said that how long it takes grief to heal is a function, not of the amount of time that has passed, but of the quantity of tears that have been shed. I have been fortunate to have ample opportunity to cry, in fact to bawl my heart out. That’s what ceremonies are for, and time with friends. As I say in more detail in the chapter of my book titled “The Overlooked Adaptation,” the discharge of painful emotion is a healing process.(6) It is our body-mind-spirit’s way of removing tensions and mental pollutants that get in the way of exuberant enjoyment of life. The sweat lodge in particular was a good place for crying away grief, as well as pounding away rage and shaking away terror. For a time, in between bouts of emotional release my mood was grey. I was surrounded by gloom, and I knew it, but it seemed even less interesting to try to do or feel something else. That gloom has now lifted, and I find myself with enjoyable things to do and fun people to be with. And then the tears come again. I don’t try to push them away, nor do I try to prolong them. I just let them take their course, and after a while I raise my head to the present again. All we have is now.
(1) Grimes, The Fun of Dying, p. 22.
(2) Wikipedia, “Paradigm shift.”
(3) Meacham, “Being Human in a Conscious Universe” and “Matter, Mind and Metaphysics.”
(4) Nye, “Bald Eagle Frequently Asked Questions.”
(5) Plato, Phaedo, 64a.
(6) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 117-127.
Grimes, Roberta. The Fun of Dying: Find Out What Really Happens Next. Greater Reality Publications (http://greaterreality.com), 2010.
Meacham, Bill. “Being Human in a Conscious Universe.” Online publication http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/BeingHumanConsciousUniverse.htm.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://bmeacham.com.
Meacham, Bill. “Matter, Mind and Metaphysics.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=951.
Nye, Peter. “Bald Eagle Frequently Asked Questions.” Online publication http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/eagle/ExpertAnswer05.html as of 22 October 2013.
Plato. Phaedo. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 2nd printing. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York, Pantheon Books, 1963.
Wikipedia. “Paradigm shift.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm_shift as of 22 October 2013.
I delivered a lecture and led a discussion the other night on “Being Human in a Conscious Universe” at a joint meeting of INACS and IONS Austin. I’m pleased to say that the lecture was well received and the discussion lively, but the paper is a bit too long for a blog post. Instead you can find it here: http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/BeingHumanConsciousUniverse.htm.
In the copious literature about consciousness produced by philosophers in the past fifteen or twenty years we find mention of zombies. A philosophical zombie (as opposed to the slow-witted, bloody, undead ones in the movies who like to eat people) is a hypothetical creature used in thought experiments to elucidate what consciousness is. It is supposed to look and act just like a human being but lack subjective experience. David Chalmers defines it thus: “A zombie is physically identical to a normal human being, but completely lacks conscious experience. Zombies look and behave like the conscious beings that we know and love, but ‘all is dark inside.’ There is nothing it is like to be a zombie.”(1) As Philip Goff describes it,
A philosophical zombie version of you would walk and talk and in general act just like you. If you stick a knife into it, it’ll scream and try to get away. If you give it a cup of tea it’ll sip it with a smile. It uses its five senses to negotiate the world around it just as you do. And the reason it behaves just like you is that the physical workings of its brain are indiscernible from the physical workings of your own brain. If a brain scientist cut open the heads of you and your zombie twin and poked around inside, she would be unable to tell the two apart.
However, your zombie twin has no inner experience: there is nothing that it’s like to be your zombie twin. Its screaming and running away when stabbed isn’t accompanied by a feeling of pain. Its smiles are not accompanied by any feeling of pleasure. Its negotiation of its environment does not involve a visual or auditory experience of that environment. Your zombie twin is just a complex automaton mechanically set up to behave just like you. The lights are on but nobody’s home.(2)
Sounds a bit ridiculous, right? Why would somebody postulate such thing? They do so in order to refute the idea that everything is at root physical, that conscious experience is nothing but brain cells firing in certain ways. The notion of a philosophical zombie is a weapon in one of the skirmishes of the ongoing mind-body debate. If we can conceive of such a thing as a philosophical zombie, the opponents of physicalism say, then physicalism must be false. Here is the reasoning:
- According to physicalism, all that exists in our world (including consciousness) is physical.
- Thus, if physicalism is true, a logically possible world in which all physical facts are the same as those of the actual world must contain everything that exists in our actual world. In particular, conscious experience must exist in such a possible world.
- In fact we can conceive of a world physically indistinguishable from our world but in which there is no consciousness (a zombie world). From this (so Chalmers argues) it follows that such a world is logically possible.
- Therefore, physicalism is false. The conclusion follows from 2 and 3 by modus tollens.(3)
This chain of thought has provoked lots of heat but little light. Can we really conceive of a philosophical zombie or do we only think we conceive of it? If we only think we conceive of it, isn’t that conceiving of it? If we can conceive of it, does that make it logically possible? Does logical possibility have any bearing on what actually exists? Is the concept self-contradictory? Is the argument circular, assuming as a hidden premise what is to be proved? The questions go on and on. That they can’t be answered should serve as a clue that there is something out of whack in the very foundations of the controversy.
In fact the bickering about zombies is a red herring, a distraction that serves no purpose. The philosophical concept of zombie is not only ridiculous but meaningless. By definition such a zombie is an exact physical duplicate of a human being that acts exactly the same as a human being. Hence, there is no possible way for anyone to distinguish a zombie from a human being. As William James says, “What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.”(4) There is no practical difference between saying that someone is a zombie and saying that someone is a human being, so the distinction is meaningless. The concept of zombie is completely useless.
The distinction between zombie and human being seems to be reasonable only because we mistake experience of subjective (private, internal) objects and events for experience of objective (public, external) objects and events. In both cases we are conscious of something. Because more than one person can be conscious of something objective, we mistakenly act as if more than one person could be conscious of something subjective. But they can’t. Only one person can be conscious of something subjective, namely the person whose subjectivity it is. We act as if positing an entity that is just like a human being but lacking consciousness is like positing an entity that is just like an able-bodied person but lacking an arm. The two are not at all similar, and it is a kind of category mistake to treat them as if they were.
Because the concept of philosophical zombie is meaningless, it has no bearing on the question of how mind and matter are related. We’d all be better off if we quit wasting our time in idle disputes about it.
(1) Chalmers, “Zombies on the web.”
(2) Goff, “The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind,” p. 6.
(3) Wikipedia, “Philosophical zombie.”
(4) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” p.42.
Chalmers, David. “Zombies on the web.” Online publication http://consc.net/zombies.html as of 21 August 2013.
Goff, Philip. “The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind.” Philosophy Now magazine, #96, pp. 6-7.
James, William. “What Pragmatism Means.” Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 41-62. New York: Meridian Books, 1955. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm as of 21 August 2013.
Wikipedia. “Philosophical zombie.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie as of 21 August 2013.
Originally printed in the May 2013 edition of Humanity & Society.(1)
Last week my daughter drove over a bent signpost in the road, and it flipped up and smashed a hole in her car directly under her seat. It ripped the car up, but fortunately she was uninjured. Then I found out that teenagers in her rural area sometimes leave booby traps like that on purpose, just for laughs. Imagine my outrage!
What puzzles me is that they don’t even stick around to see the results. (If they did, they’d probably quit doing it.) What kind of society do we live in that fosters such anonymous malice? I can understand walking around with a chip on your shoulder and getting into a fight with someone who pisses you off. Even if that person is merely a trigger and not the real cause of your anger, at least there is some personal connection, another human being at the end of your fist. But to set an anonymous ambush? The perpetrator has no connection with the victim, and in fact deliberately avoids connection. What is that about?
Systems theory offers a heuristic clue: the problem contains the solution. Perhaps the very anonymity is not only the symptom but the cause. Humans need contact with other humans. We are, as ethologists say, obligatorily gregarious. We need close, warm contact with others as much as we need food and water. If we don’t get essential nutrients, we suffer; and if we don’t get them long enough we become deformed. Likewise, if we don’t get close, warm contact we become socially deformed; and that deformity plays out as malevolence that, in its very anonymity, contains a hidden cry for help.
Research tells us how social and political structures exacerbate or mitigate the isolation that causes such harm. But it does not tell us how to open our hearts and hear the inchoate cries of those who feel compelled to lash out to assuage their own pain. Could I enter imaginatively into the lived experience of the perpetrator, and reach out to that person with compassion? Could I put aside my outrage—or at least deal with it in other ways—and see that person not as my enemy but as a fellow member of the human family? If I could, it might begin to heal me and to heal hurtful social structures as well.
(1) Meacham, Bill. “Anonymous Malice.” Humanity & Society, May 2013, vol. 37 no. 2, pp. 192-193. Online publication http://has.sagepub.com/content/37/2/192.full.pdf as of 25 May 2013.
I was recently interviewed about my book on the Rag Radio program on KOOP-FM, and you can listen to it here:
If that doesn’t work, you can listen to or download it here as well:
To download it, right-click the link (Mac: hold down the Option key while clicking the link) and select Download or Save. To listen to it, just click it. Depending on your browser, it may just start playing or it may ask you if you want to open it or download it. It is a big file, so if you have a slow internet connection it could take a long time to download.
Advance notice: I’ll be having a book-signing event at BookPeople in Austin on September 10. Mark your calendar if you will be in town.
Here is a thought experiment for you: What if there aren’t really any moral rules? What if moral rules, unlike physical objects and events, do not actually exist independently of us?
What if God (however you conceive that entity) does not exist and hence can give us no commands? (This is the view of the atheists.) Or, if God does exist, what if God does not command us to do (or not do) anything? (This is the view of many deists.) Or what if there is in principle no way of knowing whether God exists and hence no way of knowing what the divine commands might be? (This is the view of the agnostics.)
Furthermore, what if there is no unseen realm of moral rules, obligations, rights and responsibilities existing independently of us? (This is the view called “moral anti-realism.”) What if morality is only constructed socially; and, being socially constructed, can be socially deconstructed if we like?
How then should we figure out how to live our lives? Or, since “should” often refers to a moral rule or obligation, what would be the best way or even a pretty good way to figure out how to live our lives?
In the absence of moral rules we would have to use a form of reasoning I call ethical inference to argue from factual premises to recommendations. For example:
- People who eat a balanced, nutritious diet are healthier than people who don’t.
- Sarah wants to be healthy.
- Therefore, Sarah should eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
That “should” is a recommendation of prudence, not a moral command. It is in what I call the “goodness paradigm” of language instead of the “rightness paradigm.”(1) The goodness paradigm makes recommendations instead of giving commmands; and it does so on the basis of the observable effects of our actions, rather than an appeal to moral rules. Such recommendations do not follow with deductive certainty, but are the result of practical reasoning. If the premises are true, reasonable and appropriate, then the conclusion follows with enough practical credence to warrant acting on it.
The first premise of the ethical inference is factual. We can assess its truth by making observations, administering surveys, performing scientific experiments and so forth. That is one of the advantages of the goodness paradigm, that its claims can be objectively verified.
The second premise is also factual, but it pertains to a person’s desires or intentions. If Sarah has no desire to be healthy, then she has no reason to follow the advice.
So the philosophical question becomes, what should we desire? Or, if we don’t like the term “should,” what is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved actually to strive to achieve it?
The ancient Greeks had an answer: eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing,” “happiness” or “fulfillment.” What we all by nature want and try to achieve is to survive, thrive and feel happy and fulfilled. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that this desire is fundamental and essential to all humans as rational beings that have needs.(2) And if you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it. (And once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled.) So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.
Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to flourish? How are we constituted, how do we function, what is good for us and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?
We can answer the question about human nature in two ways, idiosyncratically and generically. By “idiosyncratically” I mean that each of us has certain talents and abilities, and it makes sense for us to pursue and nurture the talents we have, and not the ones we don’t. If someone has a talent for music but not much athletic ability, that person will be more successful in life and happier by practicing music than by practicing basketball. The opposite would be true for a musically inept athlete.
By “generically” I mean that there are certain functions and abilities we all have by virtue of being human. Hence, it makes sense for us to nurture and expand those functions and abilities. And what are they? Well, I have written a whole book about the subject; it’s a bit much to summarize here. But one thing is common to both the idiosyncratic and generic approaches: self-knowledge.
Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(3) That’s not a moral command; it’s just good advice. And it is probably the best advice any of us will ever receive.
(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”
(2) Versenyi, “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?”
(3) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”
Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
Versenyi, Laszlo. “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?” Ethics, Vol. 80, No. 3 (April, 1970), pp. 240-242. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2380274 as of 12 October 2010.
Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi as of 10 May 2013.