Learning in Conversation

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Dear Howie, Russell & Friends,

As Russell and I approach our first anniversary of blogging and second anniversary of friendship, I’ve been reflective.  I tend to be that way before milestones of all types.  As a runner and hiker, the milestone analogy has always resonated with me.  It also fits well with my realistic expectation that I’ll be dead in less than 50 years.  Where am I?  Where have I been?  Where to next?

The reading, writing, and breakfasts of the last two years have been invigorating.  I’m learning again.  I felt that way when I read both of your responses to my comments on Romans 3: 1-4.  I wrote this doozy of a sentence:

I think that my faith in my own love of people, justice and mercy would be shaken as my intellect finds non-theistic normative reasons less convincing.

This was in response to Howie’s question:

I’m curious: if tomorrow all scientist, theologians, and philosophers got together and came to a 100% consensus that there are no gods would you then stop loving people, justice, and mercy?

Russell wisely replied this (to me):

Can you clarify this sentence a bit? I think I’m misreading it.

I’ll work backwards.  Russell, you are not misreading, I am miswriting.  I know better (only because I keep failing) than to use big words obscurely rather than smaller words well-joined.  Here’s a replay of my sentence with better communication (more words, but less dense):

If I did not have God as a reason for my morality, I acknowledge that I would still be moral.  My reasons include strong and positive personal experiences with very moral very skeptical people (you first among them).  But, if God as the basis of my morality went away I would be less sure of myself.  I would not understand why I wanted to be good when there is a stronger impulse in me to do the wrong thing.  It may be (as I have often suspected) that my nature is more corrupt than yours.  Genes and experience have made me less kind, gentle, and forgiving.  So I may be that person who needs religion more to civilize me.

Back to Howie.  He replied:

When I was a Christian I chose to follow the Jesus I thought still existed because I believed that he represented what is truly good. I was drawn in by some of the beautiful sayings in the sermon on the mount. I wasn’t following because I thought he was the most powerful one with the keys to afterlife so I better listen to whatever he says no matter what he asks, even if it goes against my moral sense. This seems to be the theme of the Abraham/Isaac story, as well as the genocidal conquests in the old testament and those things go against my own moral sense.

Then Howie referred me to thoughts he had about morality.  I read for an hour and the time was well spent. I especially appreciate the referral to a clean article on the concept of infinite regress.  Russell has mentioned coherentism before and I didn’t take the time to learn that it was a possible solution to the problem of infinite regress (constant asking of “why?”, like a child).

Like Howie, I find this topic important.  Do I claim that the moral law is imprinted on our spirits by Creator God?  Do I allow that he did so with the behavioral aspects of human evolution?  Do I consider “these truths to be self evident”?  Did Plato get it right?  I do claim the first assertion, yet my reasons are not yet sufficient to reply to honest questions.  One thing I’m appreciating about this process is that I need more humility and patience.  I need to listen well.  I honestly find this more interesting than my current car listening adventure of why entropy validates the arrow of time and makes macroscopic closed timelike curves unlikely [insert wry grin].

This place is safe for respectful argument.  This place is safe for conversation.  I’m one of the most ignorant people here and I’m excited about learning!

Do you have skeptical or believing friends who exemplify morality to you?  I would answer:  Russell.  Why do you think they are that way?

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  Der kleine Kinderfreund by Anonymous Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Der_kleine_Kinderfreund_T11_img05.jpg

11 comments

  1. Hi Pascal,

    Thank you for your detailed response, and thank you very much for the hospitality you’ve shown me on your blog. I feel like a part of the community. I’m also glad you found my morality posts helpful. I don’t expect people to read them because they are a bit dry.

    I read this post of yours a few times and I get it. There really isn’t much I disagree with here, if anything. The only thing I may say is that you might be selling yourself short. Russell and CC know you better than I do, but my gut feel is that they too would think that you would desire good even if it doesn’t emanate from a god.

    But I do agree that the idea of an all perfect “God” could add some additional motivating factors for being a good person, whether it be out of a nice feeling that the God is pleased with you, or even some fear of punishment. Whether or not these factors end up creating a more ethical person as opposed to a more natural perspective is up for debate, but seems too complex for me so I leave that tangential discussion alone.

    What spawned my comments to you was your previous comment to someone else which indicated that there may be no need for being humanistic without gods. I was hoping to add other perspectives which point in a different direction. I think there are good reasons even if they are only naturalistic. And my agnostic side also resonates with this quote mis-attributed to Marcus Aurelius:

    Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

    For me, empathy for all human beings has always run strong, and perhaps I have it more than others. Is my empathy for my family stronger than for others? Sure, but I still feel awful seeing anyone of any country, race, culture, etc. harmed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like that quote too and I like having you here. I want to explore this topic more over time if you’re willing. It feels like that is what Russell and I have been doing for the past year – – building the table of content.

      One thing I like about the quote (and your way of thinking) – – it is much better than Pascal’s wager, for the skeptic and for the believer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pascal, I’ll absolutely explore this topic with you more over time in the future – I’m a patient man (I can get away with saying that because my wife is not a blogger – if she was she’d be virtually calling me out right now for lying to you 😉 )

        I’m really not sure but I wonder if my perspective might be a little different because I converted to Christianity from another religion. It’s hard to tell.

        I also prefer that quote to Pascal’s wager. A while back I saw someone call it the Agnostic’s wager.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “I would not understand why I wanted to be good when there is a stronger impulse in me to do the wrong thing.”

    Really, Pascal? Do you believe that this is true overall, or might you be biased to recall times when your character deviates from the norm?

    I believe that there are times when you are tempted by the wrong thing—so am I. But I believe that you can come up with reasons not to do them that will help you overcome that temptation—even if a holy God is out of the picture.

    I have said that I was a better person with Jesus, and I think that was true at first. But it’s not because I couldn’t find reasons to do the right thing without Jesus. It was just that I sometimes ignored those reasons because I’m prideful and selfish. As I experienced the negative consequences of my selfish actions, performed partially out of rebellion against a faith I lost, I became less and less likely to do them again. My character is truly evolving for the first time. Things I previously didn’t do because they would break the heart of a holy God, I now don’t do because I’ve done them in rebellion and seen how they break the hearts of people I love (mainly my husband). Jesus kept me from immorality the first time. But once I rebelled and did immoral things, it became the natural consequences of those things—the very real realization that they are wrong regardless of what a deity says about them—that keeps me from doing them again.

    I think it would be the same for you, because I think I know your heart. You believe that it’s the Spirit that convicts you now, but if you no longer had that—your heart would break over evil still…just for different reasons.

    Did that make any sense at all? Too sick to sleep, too drugged to write clearly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sorry that you’re sick. You still write clearly.

      It did make sense. So, I accept your argument about character evolving. I’ll use an old word that you know too – – sanctification. I also accept your argument that a more mature character will focus on others. Our minor point of departure is this – – I think that the character you describe honors Jesus more than the past view of character which was a more God-self focused improvement project. Your present evolution is more God-honoring.

      I think your current view of loving Russell is more Christlike than your former hope to be led by the spiritual man who would anchor your new nuclear family. And, to be honest, I feel the same way about him. He was constructed with this intellect and manner of thinking on purpose. His authentic struggles are of greater value than the dream of a perfect man. Those dreams in my life were vapor.

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      1. I feel like you’re trying to score your own points on the goal I’m supposed to be shooting at. If someone looks more like Your view of Christ after walking away from Christ (or if they look more like Christ without ever having known him than some believers do), you can’t use that as evidence for Christ. Since you have never actually seen Christ, you have to acknowledge that what you call “Christ-like” morality is really just morality that approaches an ideal that most of us likely share. Christianity has named that ideal “Christ.” Others may simply call it “morality” or “goodness.”

        Regardless of what they call it, acknowledge that others are able to exhibit moral behavior without Christ as their motivation—they are living examples of people who found a reason to be good despite the sometimes stronger impulse to do what is wrong.

        If you see any evolution in my character since I walked away, why can’t that be evidence for my argument—that there is hope for finding meaning and motivation to live well apart from Christ—instead of evidence for yours?

        Saying that my character is more Christ-like in some ways is really just saying I’m closer to our shared ideal—without Christ.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Let me add some things, because what I wrote above is not completely fair. You DO acknowledge morality in non-believing others (especially Russell)—you have just said that you would personally have a hard time explaining why you wanted to be good when you have a strong impulse within you to do the wrong thing, and you have suggested that perhaps you are naturally more corrupt and in need of religion (my paraphrase).

          I agree with you that Russell stands out. His morality is unsurpassed by any person I have met (although I can assure you that he has flaws and makes mistakes sometimes). From what I know of you, you are more like me. Pride, lust, materialism…I struggle with the common things, and my faith has helped me win against my own nature. When I stopped having faith, I was surprised to find real reasons to want to overcome my own tendencies—reasons that don’t include Jesus. I really believe that you are no worse than I am if left to your own nature, and I’m convinced that you would still find meaningful reasons to tame your wildness and smooth the rough edges, just as I have.

          If I now look more like what I was trying to look like before, that’s a sign to me that the path I was following before wasn’t working—not evidence that something in my life points to Christ even after I stopped acknowledging him with my heart and my words.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. If the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, then you know your own heart better than mine. The challenge for us both will be to construct a language that does not contain the ethic we learned in scripture. Was the golden rule written before his followers attributed it to Christ? Yes. Confucius said “Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire” during the axial age ca 500 BCE.

            Patience, kindness, gentleness, respect – – distinctive Christian directives, or appeals to the better angels of our nature? If the moral law is to be taken as evidence over and above evolutionary psychology it is probably imprinted upon all humankind. If not, then it favored the species. Which explanation soothes your soul and presents more teachable moments to your daughters?

            I have never had a problem with your doubt or thought you were sliding to apostasy. I do think that your faith was completely sincere, yet very much the survival mechanism of a girl who went through too much and needed someone who would not betray her. Jesus was that person. In my opinion, he still is. From my standpoint, neither he nor I will leave you. If I’m wrong, and he is a construct of my wishful thinking and desperation as well, then I’m sorry. I won’t consider my life wasted.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Well said, wife and friend. I was just now able to read all this.

              Pascal, you said:

              Which explanation soothes your soul and presents more teachable moments to your daughters?

              If only that were the primary concern. I’d be some form of progressive Christian, or at least a Buddhist, if I could find a way to consider that question. Unfortunately, for me, there’s another question that takes precedence.

              Is the explanation your considering both coherent AND at least as likely as all the alternatives?

              If the answer is no, the explanation cannot be fully believed and fully lived. If it is coherent and almost as likely as the most likely alternative, I may be able to live it out but not fully. There’s only so much room my mind will allow in order for my “desired beliefs” to overcome my “reasoned beliefs.” My Christian walk was directly correlated with how convinced I was that the faith was true. As I became more aware of science, logic, fallacies, difficulties with scripture, etc., the Christian explanation for reality became less-likely than the null hypothesis. This eliminated it as a viable option that I could choose and then live with conviction. If I can’t answer this first question in the affirmative, I can’t make it to your Life of Pi question above.

              You also said:

              If I’m wrong, and he is a construct of my wishful thinking and desperation as well, then I’m sorry. I won’t consider my life wasted.

              I have deep respect for this and I understand. I can’t presently get to that point – to living for it – if I can’t hold it as coherent and on equal footing with the rest of my beliefs about reality. You can, and I’m very glad for it. I hope you always do find a way to believe it and that you live it out through the end.

              Gentleness and respect,
              –Russell

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  3. Hi Pascal,

    Thank you for clarifying. I think I understood your original sentence in context on the other post when I listened to it from Siri, but not when I read it myself the first time. This response was more clear. 🙂

    But, if God as the basis of my morality went away I would be less sure of myself.

    I’ve definitely found that to be the case, as we would both expect. A believer has certainty in many things, including morality and where it comes from. If we lose that certainty we are less sure of our explanations about the reasons behind many metaphysical things. I don’t think this is an argument for the correctness of the faith, only an explanation for why the loss of it would be hard. I’ve found that to be the case, and I’m guessing that’s what you mean.

    I would not understand why I wanted to be good when there is a stronger impulse in me to do the wrong thing.

    This is where I was a little confused, so thank you for spelling it out clearly. Can you try to clarify what it is that you don’t understand about the natural explanation for morality? Is there a reason that this explanation doesn’t seem sufficient to you? I agree that it isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the certainty we can have from faith (which makes it hard to leave faith). But in the absence of faith, hypothetically, would you not accept the natural explanation of evolutionary psychology as plausible to frame your desire for “goodness.”

    As an aside, I heard something yesterday in Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive. It turns out that children as young as 18 months, 14 months, and even 6 months have been shown over and over again to demonstrate pro-social behavior. I’ll explain the experiments later if you like. Then there are the many similar experiments that reveal similar outcomes among primates and other animals (elephants, dolphins, birds, etc.).

    All this seems sufficient to grant that evolution alone may explain moral impulses. So, I get that you’d have a strong impulse to do the wrong thing at times, but why does that imply that the natural explanation for moral behavior doesn’t explain why you’d sometimes want to do the right thing? I may be misreading you again. 🙂

    It may be (as I have often suspected) that my nature is more corrupt than yours. Genes and experience have made me less kind, gentle, and forgiving. So I may be that person who needs religion more to civilize me.

    I doubt it. It’s impossible to know at this point since we’ve both been civilized by religion and culture already. 🙂 I find you to be very highly moral, kind, gentle, and forgiving. It’s easy to give all credit to your faith and assume, as the faith would have us believe, that you’d be wretched without it. That does provide biblical motivation to stay in the faith and be suspicious of the motives of skeptics (until we meet some of the nicer ones), but I honestly doubt you’d fall from your moral graces if you found your faith untenable.

    Perhaps your youth was a bit wild at times, and I think you once characterize parts of it as prideful. However, such is the case for most youths (relative to the rest of the population). I think that may be one of the many defining attributes of youth. It would be hard to look back at your life, having reach a mature state, and say what you would be like without the specific mediating influence of Christianity (over Buddhism or secular humanism, for example).

    Due to God or just the belief in Him, I’m glad you are the way you are. 🙂

    Gentleness and respect,
    –Russell

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