Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cicero's claim about immutable goodness

There is a train of thought going back even to the classical and ancient world that living an upright life is one of the marks of being human, and that going against it is an offense against humanity and ourselves. Here is the Roman writer Cicero (d. 43 BC), giving eloquent voice to that thought:
There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation.
Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author,—its promulgator,—its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life.

[Alternate translation of the last portion:

Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.]

[The second seems a more faithful rendering of that portion of the original, which is given as:]
cui qui non parebit, ipse se fugiet ac naturam hominis aspernatus hoc ipso luet maximas poenas, etiamsi cetera supplicia, quae putantur, effugerit.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (De Re Publica [Of The Republic], Book III Section 22)
Some themes are common to all humanity. Cicero had a good reputation in the church, both for his philosophy and for his writing style. 

So: Do we obey a command because God gives it, or do we obey a command from the incentives of reward and punishment? That question, much like Euthyphro's dilemma, also has premises that undermine a complete answer. If the desire to do right is intrinsic to humanity, and if there are universals of what is right, then denying them is denying part of our humanity. In that case, doing what is right is healthy and intrinsically carries the reward of actualizing the human potential even if no external incentives ever appear. Likewise doing is wrong is unhealthy and intrinsically carries the shame and loss of rejecting that part of our own humanity, even if no external punishments are ever applied.

From a Christian point-of-view, we identify this intrinsic good with both God's will and God's nature. This means that pursuing this intrinsic good will move us closer to God's will and nature, and that turning away would do the opposite. And because fellowship is built on what is shared and common, the same pursuit of intrinsic good will unite us more closely with people who pursue the same goals.

If Cicero is right that there exist human moral universals, then a denial or rejection of these human moral universals would lead to an erosion of humanity or human excellence. It would also lead to an erosion of unity in society, as each group goes after their own way, and an erosion of the rule of law as it is considered to have no ultimate validity.

Is Cicero right? We live in an age that no longer grants his premises. (Which, I hope, will be the topic of the next post.)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Another Celebrity Self-Destructs .. Can We Re-Think Celebrity Culture?

This last week saw another celebrity suicide with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. And it has become disturbingly routine for the rich and famous to take themselves out of the game before their time, either on purpose or with an accidental self-destruction through an overdose on drugs and alcohol.

I'm not sure when idolizing the famous became such a large part of our culture. I suspect the seeds were always there, and grew along with the reach of fame as world-wide audiences were possible. The loss of life is tragic. How much of the problem traces to celebrity-culture with its impossible demands for performance, beauty, energy and perfection? How much of it is the fleeting nature of fame, where the size of the talent pool results in so many "flash-in-the-pan" careers? (How many articles feature less-than-kind follow-ups on ex-celebrities: "Where are they now?" "You won't believe what they look like these days!" "Why won't anyone hire them anymore?") Some of it is the entertainment industry's pursuit of novelty and edginess, and as the frontier of edginess is pushed ever farther, some people selected for celebrity may be less grounded or stable, less able to deal with the stress, scrutiny, and instability of the industry.

And it can't be healthy for the consumers of the culture, when the culture is produced by -- and built on the lives of -- people who ultimately reject the worth of life itself. A few haunting times since the death of Amy Winehouse from alcohol poisoning, I've heard the song in which she sang about turning down rehab. Given what happened to the artist, why are we still playing that song? And part of the problem is that we've become consumers of culture, not so much participants in it. It's too easy to live vicariously through performers, too easy to go along with unreasonable expectations being placed on a performer, or finding someone who will voice our brokenness and at what point does it become taking advantage of them?

I've been mulling over whether there is anything we can do. The ideas below are tentative as I struggle with what we can do; there are ideas both what we can do to help celebrities and to help with the impact on the rest of us. I wonder whether it would help to:
  • Not buy tabloids that exploit the stress or misery of performers
  • Not follow click-bait links to articles that are vulture-like in dealing with lost careers
  • Call for ethical standards for media coverage of public figures
  • Call for better working conditions (hours/schedules) for performers
  • Encourage everyday people to have more real friends than imaginary ones, which should be a healthy step even if every celebrity were mentally-healthy and a good role model

Sunday, July 16, 2017

If the Bible didn't say "God is love", would we have figured it out?

I've recently traded some comments with a thoughtful skeptic. Christians take it as a given that God is love because one of Jesus' apostles left a letter saying that God is love. We take his word for that. But do we have anything besides his word for it?

So here are some lines of reasoning that support the idea that God is love. These aren't intended as full proper axiomatic proofs; they all have their premises that aren't in-scope here. But for those who accept the premises, these support the idea that love is what most defines God:

The Nature of Morality
  1. For Christians, the nature of morality is to be like God. Many commandments in the Bible are backed with this reasoning: do a certain thing because God does it. 
  2. According to Jesus, the greatest commandments are the commandments to love God and neighbor. 
  3. It would follow that the greatest way to be like God is to love. 
  4. So the action that most defines God is love.
The Nature of Virtue

Some people see this as the same as #1 morality; others don't, depending on their school of thought on morality and virtue. So to cover all the bases:
  1. Virtue is to be like God; 
  2. The greatest virtue is love; 
  3. It would follow that the greatest way to be like God is to be loving. 
  4. So again the virtue that most defines God is love.
The Origin of Creation

This one takes as given that God doesn't hate himself; it is also informed by the book of Genesis regardless of how analogically you take it.
  1. As any creator or artist, or as any parent, God created based on his own thoughts and will and imagination, and his own being. Everything that was created was based on his own being, and was good. 
  2. Everyone has goodwill and compassion towards what they have made that they recognize as good, because of the intrinsic nature of the relationship between the good in them and the good in what they have made. 
  3. God's love is therefore intrinsic in his relationship with everything he has made. 
 If anyone has another line of reasoning to add to the collection, I'd be glad to learn of it.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

"God is love": What do we mean by that?

Over at CADRE Comments, there has been a discussion on the idea that "God is love" (with some intensity from a debate in the comment thread). I think the question is important; one of the skeptics in the comment thread suggests starting with the dictionary, so:

The Oxford dictionary on love has the more relevant entries as:
noun: An intense feeling of deep affection.
verb: To feel deep affection for (someone)
The Oxford definition of "love" is lacking enough that it explains exactly why Christians often go back to the Greek word that can be rendered into English as agape: what Oxford means by "love" is only the tip of the iceberg for what Christians mean by it. Oxford limits love to a deep or intense affection; but affection comes and goes. Oxford's thoughts on love are (at best) a matter of the heart only or (less than that) just a passing hormonal phenomenon. 

Christianity sees love as "heart, soul, strength, and mind": the heart is essential for Christian love, but "Heart" is only a fraction of what is involved. "Soul" refers to the wholeness of our being, so that agape-love seeks more permanence than affection, more spiritual depth than affection. "Strength" reminds us of the role of dedication and effort in increasing and strengthening our love, and with a call to build something more lasting than can be achieved by sentimentality. "Mind" rounds out our love with participation from our intellect, with contributions such as thoughtfulness and consideration. This thoughtful love is the foundation of wisdom: knowledge directed by love. 

That's enough of definitions, though. Do we mean that God is capable of affection? Yes, we do, though it needs immediate follow-up because there is a school of thought that says that emotions are passions and imply mutability or weakness. Here's the thing: do emotions imply mutability or weakness by their essential nature, or do emotions get that reputation because humans are mutable and weak? If we take as a premise that "love", being generous in nature, is not weak, and that God, being divine in nature, is not mutable, then there is nothing unworthy of God in having a strong and immutable love. Imagine that is why he created: out of love. Now imagine that God has a strong and immutable love for what he has made, that leads him to work for the good of all he has made, and for restoring things to their original glory. Imagine that strong and immutable love includes you.

That's what we mean by "God is love." 

I'd invite any newcomers to the blog who are interested in the topic to also skim through the posts that are tagged "love", or tagged "God's love in action".

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Afterlife: Open response to Michael Shermer's article

Michael Shermer writes for Scientific American in their regular one-page anti-religious column (often anti-Christian column) titled "Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye". Setting aside the arrogance and argument-baiting in using that as the column title for an anti-religious feature, I thought his July 2017 article deserved a response mostly because it's on the topic of his next book to be released in 2018, and because the article contained some badly reasoned attacks on the idea of an afterlife.

His launching point is a response to the Netflix film The Discovery (2017) as an opportunity to respond to the theory of quantum consciousness, a scientific theory that the mind and consciousness are independent of the physical brain. In the page allotted to his column, he makes three quick arguments:

1. Memories As Function, Brain Death As Irrecoverable Failure
First there is the assumption that our identity is located in our memories, which are presumed to be permanently recorded in the brain: if they could be copied and pasted into a computer or duplicated and implanted into a resurrected body or soul, we would be restored. But that is not how memory works. Memory is not like a DVR that can play back the past on a screen in your mind. Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional.
There's a side note that bears mentioning: there is a risk of oversimplifying if we reduce our identity to our memories. While our identity would include our memories, it does not end there. Another part of our identity would be what I think of as "attached appetites". These are desires, goals, drives, motivations, and that kind of thing. For example, we may have an appetite for understanding which is currently attached to the goal of understanding the contents of a particular book, or an appetite for mastery which is currently attached to the goal of mastering a certain language. Our memories might tell us how much progress we have made on our quests, or even whether we have consciously recognized certain quests. But these are framework items that unify our memories and contribute to our more fluid understanding; they are not fully accounted for by reducing our scope to simple isolated memories. On this point, Shermer and I might have common ground.

Back to Shermer's comments; let's unpack that a little. I think most of us have seen how a new experience will update our understanding of a previous experience, or how reflecting on something will allow us to see things that we didn't understand at first. Memories may change in some aspects with our understanding of them. Still, I don't see that as a viable argument against preserving memories at a certain point of time -- say, at the moment of death -- and having those be the starting point for a reboot (if you'll pardon the term). We may be able to update our understanding of memories, but if our minds are physical then those updates are also available to us. Picking up at the point where Shermer mentions what he sees as the critical problem with the idea of memory-transference as a way to restore identities, post-resurrection:
But [the phenomenon of returning memories] cannot happen if your brain dies. That is why CPR has to be done so soon after a heart attack or drowning -- because if the brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, the neurons die, along with the memories stored therein.
Shermer starts with something on which there's a consensus: that brain death eventually causes a state in which the memories do not return to the same neurons (which at that point have died) through the same natural process that is at work when we wake from sleep. He writes as though he believes this argument makes the final case that the memories or identity could not be restored at all, once the original neurons have died. However, he doesn't make any case for that, rather assumes it from the fact that it wouldn't happen by itself. Then again, neither would resurrection happen by itself, and people who believe in resurrection generally consider that the same Agent who causes someone's life to be restored would also cause the identity to be restored. And though he gives the appearance of interacting with religious views, Shermer makes no effort to address Jesus' resurrection on the third day after his burial with his memories, personality, and identity intact. For Christians at least, Jesus' resurrection addresses the question of whether the agent of the resurrection has this kind of thing covered.

Let's look at Shermer's second line of argument.

2. Resurrection as Copy or Twin: Non-Identity with Original

Per Shermer:
But a copy of your memories, your mind or even your soul is not you. It is a copy of you, no different than a twin, and no twin looks at his or her sibling and thinks, "There I am." Neither duplication nor resurrection can instantiate you in another plane of existence. 
Shermer may misunderstand what religious people would mean by our soul. When he says "even your soul is not you", much of religious thought would consider him to be wrong about that. A Christian would not say that a resurrected body has a copy of our soul, but the original one. Which makes the rest of his argument on this point moot, when it comes to Christian faith in the resurrection.

If Shermer's argument was addressed more to the "quantum consciousness" view than to Christians, I can imagine myself in a situation where I was restored after death through a phenomenon of copying. In that case, the fact that I was the only one of me in existence would be enough for me to think "Here I am." The identity crisis caused by a second instance doesn't hold (though more on that under his next point). So contrary to Shermer's argument, a copy after death would be different than a twin: the original is gone, and nobody is looking at the original and thinking "There I am," but "There I was (rest in peace); glad I'm back."

3. Identity and Point-Of-View

In Shermer's last argument, he references some interesting work done by neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, president of the Brain Preservation Foundation. Shermer summarizes Hayworth by saying Hayworth separates the aspects of identity based on our memories ("MEMself") from the aspects based on our point-of-view ("POVself"):
He believes that if a complete MEMself is transferred into a computer (or, presumably, resurrected in heaven), the POVself will awaken. I disagree.
Let's assume for the moment that Shermer represents Hayworth's views accurately (though I look forward to the August issue, and hope that Hayworth gets response space). Let's envision "MEMself" as composed of millions of interconnected memory points -- like pixel art in our mental map of the world around us -- and "POVself" as the understanding we try to make of those -- like vector art trying to map the same items, and even complete the picture. If Shermer is saying that all the data points, like pixels, don't necessarily tell us what the next planned move would have been or the artist's perspective: that's true enough. But if Hayworth is saying that a complete MEMself would also include a memory of the big picture that we were trying to draw and the current progress, then that particular objection is overcome.

Shermer then makes two types of follow-up argument, which are recognizably his two previous points applied to the MEMself / POVself constructs. First for the reprise of the "identical twins" argument, applied to the hypothetical neural copy reboot:
If this were done without the death of the person, there would be two memory selves, each with its own POVself looking out at the world through its unique eyes. At that moment, each would take a different path in life, thereby recording different memories based on different experiences. "You" would not suddenly have two POVs. 
But having two of you doesn't actually mean the copy didn't work. In this case there is no longer simply one of "you", but Shermer seems to consider this an argument against the theory being able to work, rather than having side-effects as complicated as a time-travel story.

Next is Shermer's reprise of the "continuity" argument where a large-enough interruption is deemed to be an irrecoverable failure of the concept itself, rather than a logistics issue:
If you died, there is no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer (or a resurrected body). A POV depends entirely on the continuity of self from one moment to the next ... Death is a permanent break in continuity, and our personal POV cannot be moved from your brain into some other medium, here or in the hereafter.
He rests his whole argument on the discontinuity of death, but in this context it's a red herring. Right now, even if you didn't die, there's still no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer. It's (at the very least) a technology problem. Death is not a necessary part of that theoretical discussion of whether our consciousness could be transferred to a computer; we could do it while still of sound mind and body, if possible and the technology existed. Though that does lead to the point where it matters that death is a red herring in the argument for "computerized synthetic resurrection", may my regular readers bear with me for the sci-fi leanings of this paragraph: Once someone's POV could be transferred to a computer at some point in time, death no longer need be an interruption for having that POV continue; it's just a matter of timing the transfer (say) somewhere in that window of time between heart death and brain death. Chalk one up for hypothetical hospice services of the future. So even if we grant his assumption that continuity is necessary, it's not an insurmountable obstacle for synthetic resurrection.

In his third point, Shermer has no new arguments that bear on the idea of Christian resurrection. To briefly recap to save the reader the cross-reference, if Shermer is positing that there is an Agent who can resurrect by some means that we do not know, then the Christian would also affirm that the Agent is fully able to restore our identities, and that this Agent has given us a good-faith demonstration in Jesus' own resurrection.