The Loquacious Atheist: He Is Speaking Pure Gibberish

When I heard that Daniel Dennett’s new book on consciousness was released, I didn’t care. He has a tendency to argue in this format:

  1. Here’s an idea it isn’t worth explaining from the past.
  2. Here’s my alternative that uses sciency words.
  3. It cannot be explained by current science, but with enough scientific advances, it obviously will be explained.
  4. Logic, etc.

I’m hardly exaggerating. It’s like Sam Harris, but less endearing because it isn’t podcast format and he doesn’t look like Zoolander. I stopped reading Dennett’s books when I recognized that pattern.

David Bentley Hart refers to mistakes like this as the pleonastic fallacy, explaining qualitative distinctions in terms of quantitative increments toward some grander whole. He’s especially fond of the accusation in The Experience of God. In Breaking the Spell, Dennett basically argues that a bunch of physics explanations are true, biology is probably just as accurate, therefore there is no need for a first cause since more explanations will be found. In other words, being itself can be explained by things that already apparently possess being. Theodore Beale made this awesome meme about his style:

[ATHEIST+LOGIC.jpg]

Having mentioned Hart, the silver lining of new Dennett books being released is that Hart lumbers forth from whatever tome laden cavern he inhabits in order to put pen to paper for a brief, scornful essay before returning to his arcane pursuits. Apparently, Dennett does not disappoint and continues his pattern of argument. And Hart, not to be outdone, makes fun of him for it:

Dennett, however, writes as if language were simply the cumulative product of countless physical ingredients. It begins, he suggests, in mere phonology. The repeated sound of a given word somehow embeds itself in the brain and creates an “anchor” that functions as a “collection point” for syntactic and semantic meanings to “develop around the sound.” But what could this mean? Are semiotic functions something like iron filings and phonemes something like magnets? What is the physical basis for these marvelous congelations in the brain? The only possible organizing principle for such meanings would be that very innate grammar that Dennett denies exists — and this would seem to require distinctly mental concepts. Not that Dennett appears to think the difference between phonemes and concepts an especially significant one. He does not hesitate, for instance, to describe the “synanthropic” aptitudes that certain organisms (such as bedbugs and mice) acquire in adapting themselves to human beings as “semantic information” that can be “mindlessly gleaned” from the “cycle of generations.”

But there is no such thing as mindless semantics. True, it is imaginable that the accidental development of arbitrary pre-linguistic associations between, say, certain behaviors and certain aspects of a physical environment might be preserved by natural selection, and become beneficial adaptations. But all semantic information consists in the interpretation of signs, and of conventions of meaning in which signs and references are formally separable from one another, and semiotic relations are susceptible of combination with other contexts of meaning. Signs are intentional realities, dependent upon concepts, all the way down. And between mere accidental associations and intentional signs there is a discontinuity that no gradualist — no pleonastic — narrative can span.

Similarly, when Dennett claims that words are “memes” that reproduce like a “virus,” he is speaking pure gibberish. Words reproduce, within minds and between persons, by being intentionally adopted and employed.

And so it goes. 

A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. Here are some questions to help us think it through:

  1. Is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us?
  2. Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly?
  3. Are there desires that are more important than others?
  4. We desire food, but is there a reason to desire food?
  5. We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live?
  6. We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure?
  7. We desire sex but is there a reason for sex?

If Adler’s axiom is axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, dispute them as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept divine revelation about the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91

 

Foucault the Resentful

In an long interview, two of my favorite authors/speakers discuss the problems of academia, particularly the adoption of Lacan, Foucalt, and Derrida as heroes:

 

Peterson’s interpretation of why intellectual elites (Paglia calls them midgets), influenced as they are by Foucault act as they do is beautiful (6:42). He essentially says that the motive force in academia is resentment virtually anything that implies merit or competence!  

Coincidentally, I just read a chapter in Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life where he rather politely abuses Foucault’s misreading of the stoics. Foucault claims that the stoic notion of cultivating the self is a form of pleasure in one’s own self. But the very letter of Seneca from which he derives this view eschews self-admiration for precisely a form of contemplating ‘the best version of the self,’ or rather meditating on a transcendently transformed vision of the self in order to more fully pursue that vision. It appears to be precisely what Peterson claimed, resentment of any notion of merit or competence. 

Here’s what Seneca actually said about contemplation of the self in order to find joy:

“Real joy, believe me, is a stern matter…But it is hard to keep within bounds in that which you believe to be good. The real good may be coveted with safety. Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path. For men who leap from one purpose to another, or do not even leap but are carried over by a sort of hazard, – how can such wavering and unstable persons possess any good that is fixed and lasting? There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.”

I sympathize greatly with the stoic vision of joy, though I think that it too thoroughly eschews the pleasures of sense and their role in flourishing, but for Foucault to intentionally misrepresent that as finding pleasure in the self instead of having an aesthetic view of the world. 

Paul Graham on what can’t be said

I love ideas, data, speculation, experiments, and plans.

I also love arguments, refutations, and attempts at persuasion.

And I think what I love the most about the United States is the general legal consensus that outside of inciting people to acts of terrorism, one is allowed to say what they wish without government censure. In this sense, I am and have always been a free-speech absolutist. If somebody wants to make the case that a grave sin is actually sane and good, I’ll hear it. If somebody wants to claim that mega civilizations can control galaxies for energy and call it science, I’ll listen to Michio Kaku:

But, how free speechy (I think I made that up) are we?

Paul Graham suggests a test for your own free speech absolutism by positing a test for moral fashions:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

If you could travel back in a time machine, one thing would be true no matter where you went: you’d have to watch what you said. Opinions we consider harmless could have gotten you in big trouble. I’ve already said at least one thing that would have gotten me in big trouble in most of Europe in the seventeenth century, and did get Galileo in big trouble when he said it—that the earth moves. [1]

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

It’s tantalizing to think we believe things that people in the future will find ridiculous. What would someone coming back to visit us in a time machine have to be careful not to say? That’s what I want to study here. But I want to do more than just shock everyone with the heresy du jour. I want to find general recipes for discovering what you can’t say, in any era.

This particular test is useful. Are my ethical standards determined by the cultural fads or careful reasoning? Christians have a tendency to feel that the Holy Spirit and deep study have prompted them toward some new ethical insight that really is just a way for them to stop being at odds with the dominant culture (sad). But my version is this:

Could you listen to the views of somebody from any time period or culture, insofar as they are not inciting terroristic or mob violence, and not want them silence, jailed, or executed?  

Obviously, this is context specific. Church services aren’t the place for giving heretics a voice, children’s classrooms aren’t the place for letting philosophical cases for sexual deviance be made, and so-on. But I think this test for free-speech absolutism is key. Am I, then, a free-speech absolutist?

Gloria Steinem and Moral Insanity

For Thomas Aquinas, sanity was one’s intellectual capacity to grasp first principles and reason from them. 

For the ancient Hebrews, killing children for fertility is Molech worship.

For Gloria Steinem, neither of those are a negative:

“Are you kidding me? Listen, what causes climate deprivation is population. If we had not been systematically forcing women to have children they don’t want or can’t care for over the 500 years of patriarchy, we wouldn’t have the climate problems that we have. That’s the fundamental cause of climate change. Even if the Vatican doesn’t tell us that. In addition to that, because women are the major agricultural workers in the world, and also the carriers of water and the feeders of families and so on, it’s a disproportionate burden.”

Steinem does, to her credit, depart from other elements of the hard-left zeitgeist. But the paragraph above is nuts on several levels ranging from the commonly accepted definition of the patriarchy as a European phenomenon, the location of major population explosions, the nature of climate models, the question of whether or not children have rights, and the disjoint in her rhetoric between children and their cause. 

What is a good person?

Dallas Willard defines a morally good person:

The morally good person is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will called “character.”

This is a serviceable definition. It is a few words away from a definition of a mature Christian. I would alter it this way to make it Christ-centered:

The mature Christian is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. The mature Christian recognizes that Jesus Christ’s teachings are the surest guide to the relative degrees of importance of those goods, especially Jesus’ focus on the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof. They understand that God is the highest good and source of all good in the world, including any good in themselves. They also see that at any moment may reject the good and are therefore themselves in need of constant repentance and are necessarily in need of forgiveness and atonement. By treating Jesus’ words as the foundation of their lives, they thereby rely on God’s Spirit and receive transforming help from God himself. 

Willard also describes the morally bad person:

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Of course, this is the person who is like Cain. Cain sees his brother Abel, wishes to have God’s approval just like him, and instead of sacrificing his own behavior and desires to achieve his ideal (to be like Abel) he slaughters his ideal. The morally bad person is similar. It’s not that they literally pursue evil. It’s that they take imprudent shortcuts to the good that destroy the good in the process or they pursue penultimate goods as the ultimate good (idolatry). Of course, the mature Christian sees the potential to become this person residing in their heart at all times. In fact, even an innocent person who has never sinned has the potential to become evil (see the Adam and Eve story).

Anything I’ve left out?

Rebuilding the Foundations

Bruce Charlton has a good post about the nature of the spiritual battle in the west:

Modern Man is sabotaged by an evil metaphysics – in other words, it is our fundamental assumptions that undermine and subvert good living for us.

We therefore need to discover, first that we actually do have a metaphysics; secondly what it is; and thirdly we need to reconstruct it so as to become true – insofar as we can discover true assumptions (which is a matter of intuition, revelation, direct knowing).

What are some of our evil metaphysical assumptions?

  1. That matter is primary reality.
  2. That meaning is imposed on the world by our minds rather than intrinsic to it.
  3. That life is therefore meaningless.
  4. That the scientific method is the only source for the only kind of knowledge.
  5. That cause and effect is only material.
  6. Truth is real.
  7. Truth is desirable enough to lose something to find it or say it.

It will generally be found (at least at first) that even when we have revised and improved our metaphysical assumptions; we nonetheless tend (partly by sheer habit, partly because of past social training and the prevalent surrounding culture); we nonetheless continue to use the old/ wrong metaphysics.

What he says here is one of the fundamental problems of most protestant forms of Christian discipleship. The protestant view is typically that belief leads to gratitude which leads to sincerely good works. But in reality, we get beliefs right on the level of intellectual assent or at least, pseudo assent for social acceptance. But we skip the fact that beliefs of that sort must be experienced to be true in practice. In other words, belief in doctrines not only leads to, but comes from practicing Christian practices. As an aside, the word translated “doctrine” in the King James Bible means, as far as I can tell, something closer to “apprenticeship.” It’s training in a whole way of life, not just transfer of beliefs.

One might observe that the metaphysical assumptions I mentioned above are not explicitly Christian, and that’s okay. In one sense, every true thing is Christian. But one need not be a Christian to hold to true metaphysical ideas. The gospel entails and assumes all of these ideas and one will have a hard time practicing the gospel without something like them in their minds. But many who do believe and live like those assumptions hold are not Christians.

What have I left out?

Passions: Natural or not?

The Passions

In Christian theology, the passions are the desires of the mind and body that often tempt people to sin. One of the big debates among ancient theologians and writers was over the passions: are they created by God or are they a deformation of character as the result of having sinned? I’m simplifying what follows by a lot, but not in a way that damages that debate.

Scripture

The Bible weighs in on this indirectly in James and Hebrews:

  1. In James 1:13-15 and James 4:1-3 we find that temptation is not the result of God trying to entice us to sin (this helps make sense of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Instead, temptation is the result of our desires [passions], reasoning, and choices.
  2. In Hebrews 4:15, we find that Christ was tempted in every way that we are.

If temptations came upon Jesus, he must have had the sorts of desires that could lead one to sin if managed with impropriety. And if Jesus is the “new Adam,” presumably his capacity to be tempted in analogous to our own.

The Passions: Crucified and Resurrected

This doesn’t end that debate, but it’s the summary of an argument that is convincing to me. One other way to put it is that for Paul the apostle, disciples are those who crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24), but for Paul crucifixion is always conceptually connected to resurrection. In other words, the flesh and it’s passions and desires are resurrected and reformed by the action of the Spirit. For instance, joy can be a sort of spiritual fruit (even though positive emotions could easily lead one to sin). Paul can also say to “put off all anger (Eph 4:31)” and “be angry, yet sin not (Eph 4:26.)”

On the other hand, Paul never once uses “passions” in a positive way. But he rarely uses the word flesh positively either, but that doesn’t mean that the basic principle of bodily existence is evil in his mind.

Now, the church fathers were split on this issue, some saw the passions as an unmitigated evil. I don’t accept that, but I’m open to the possibility. I think that the passions are like the will. They are a source of evil when estranged from God, but in themselves they are a good (like the mind, the will, or the body). Anger tells you that something seems off about the world, lust (which in the Bible  is always the word for sexual desire) is a driving force behind entrance into holy marriage, pleasure is a motivation for seeking God (Psalm 16:11), and greed is just an exaggerated desire for prestige and material security. All of these desires are commended in Scripture.

Gary North on Training to Lose

Gary North wrote an article in 1980: Training to Lose, in which he observed:

The athlete has to train before he enters the race. He must discipline his body and his will, in order to be fully prepared for the exertion of the contest. The contest has winners and losers, and the Christian is not supposed to be a loser. This means that he must enter into the contest with self-confidence, enthusiasm, and a strategy for victory. He is not to spend time looking over his shoulder to see how far he has come from the starting- point, or how well his competitors are doing. He is to look straight ahead at the finish line, pacing himself so that at the end he will have spent all of his reserves. He should give the race everything he has– emotionally, physically, and strategically.

 

If we look at modern Christianity, we find very little of this sort of training for life’s race. Christians act as though victory is achieved passively, as it the race were not worth training tor, as if the hope of victory were not part of the motivating factors in running. If we were to regard modern Christianity as a training program, and it lite were viewed as a race, how would we judge the success of the program? Would we conclude that modern preaching has raised up a generation of skilled athletes who are ready for the competition? Or would we have to conclude that the program has produced a lot of overweight, under-motivated weekend joggers who would collapse half way to the finish line?

I fear that North’s criticisms are right on.