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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 4: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art, where Barrett illustrates how existentialist thought is best exemplified in modern art.  The feelings of alienation, discontent, and meaninglessness pervade a number of modern expressions, and so as is so often the case throughout history, we can use artistic expression as a window to peer inside our evolving psyche and witness the prevailing views of the world at any point in time.

In this post, I’m going to explore Part II, Chapter 4: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition.  This chapter has a lot of content and is quite dense, and so naturally this fact is reflected in the length of this post.

Part II: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”

Ch. 4 – Hebraism and Hellenism

Barrett begins this chapter by pointing out two forces governing the historical trajectory of Western civilization and Western thought: Hebraism and Hellenism.  He mentions an excerpt of Matthew Arnold’s, in his book Culture and Anarchy; a book that was concerned with the contemporary situation occurring in nineteenth-century England, where Arnold writes:

“We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force.  And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force.  And these two forces we may regard as in some sense rivals–rivals not by the necessity of their own nature, but as exhibited in man and his history–and rivals dividing the empire of the world between them.  And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism…and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.”

And while we may have felt a stronger attraction to one force over the other at different points in our history, both forces have played an important role in how we’ve structured our individual lives and society at large.  What distinguishes these two forces ultimately comes down to the difference between doing and knowing; between the Hebrew’s concern for practice and right conduct, and the Greek’s concern for knowledge and right thinking.  I can’t help but notice this Hebraistic influence in one of the earliest expressions of existentialist thought when Soren Kierkegaard (in one of his earlier journals) had said: “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act”.  Here we see that some set of moral virtues are what form the fundamental substance and meaning of life within Hebraism (and by extension, Kierkegaard’s philosophy), in contrast with the Hellenistic subordination of the moral virtues to those of the intellectual variety.

I for one am tempted to mention Aristotle here, since he was a Greek philosopher, yet one who formulated and extolled moral virtues, forming the foundation for most if not all modern systems of virtue ethics; despite all of his work on science, logic and epistemology.  And sure enough, Arnold does mention Aristotle briefly, but he says that for Aristotle the moral virtues are “but the porch and access to the intellectual (virtues), and with these last is blessedness.”  So it’s still fair to say that the intellectual virtues were given priority over the moral virtues within Greek thought, even if moral virtues were an important element, serving as a moral means to a combined moral-intellectual end.  We’re still left then with a distinction of what is prioritized or what the ultimate teleology is for Hebraism and Hellenism: moral man versus intellectual man.

One perception of Arnold’s that colors his overall thesis is a form of uneasiness that he sees as lurking within the Hebrew conception of man; an uneasiness stemming from a conception of man that has been infused with the idea of sin, which is simply not found in Greek philosophy.  Furthermore, this idea of sin that pervades the Hebraistic view of man is not limited to one’s moral or immoral actions; rather it penetrates into the core being of man.  As Barrett puts it:

“But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible…cannot be confined to a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has to do with his moral acts.  This sinfulness pervades the whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked in the presence of God.”

So we have a predominantly moral conception of man within Hebraism, but one that is amalgamated with an essential finitude, an acknowledgement of imperfection, and the expectation of our being morally flawed human beings.  Now when we compare this to the philosophers of Ancient Greece, who had a more idealistic conception of man, where humans were believed to have the capacity to access and understand the universe in its entirety, then we can see the groundwork that was laid for somewhat rivalrous but nevertheless important motivations and contributions to the cultural evolution of Western civilization: science and philosophy from the Greeks, and a conception of “the Law” entrenched in religion and religious practice from the Hebrews.

1. The Hebraic Man of Faith

Barrett begins here by explaining how the Law, though important for its effects on having bound the Jewish community together for centuries despite their many tribulations as a people, the Law is not central to Hebraism but rather the basis of the Law is what lies at its center.  To see what this basis is, we are directed to reread the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible:

“…reread it in a way that takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode of existence of the people who gave expression to this work.  For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled the violence of the confrontation between man and God that is central to the narrative.”

Rather than simply taking the commandments of one’s religion for granted and following them without pause, Job’s face-to-face confrontation with his Creator and his demand for justification was in some sense the first time the door had been opened to theological critique and reflection.  The Greeks did something similar where eventually they began to apply reason and rationality to examine religion, stepping outside the confines of simply blindly following religious traditions and rituals.  But unlike the Greek, the Hebrew does not proceed with this demand of justification through the use of reason but rather by a direct encounter of the person as a whole (Job, and his violence, passion, and all the rest) with an unknowable and awe-inspiring God.  Job doesn’t solve his problem with any rational resolution, but rather by changing his entire character.  His relation to God involves a mutual confrontation of two beings in their entirety; not just a rational facet of each being looking for a reasonable explanation from one another, but each complete being facing one another, prepared to defend their entire character and identity.

Barrett mentions the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber here to help clarify things a little, by noting that this relation between Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou (or a You).  Since Barrett doesn’t explain Buber’s work in much detail, I’ll briefly digress here to explain a few key points.  For those unfamiliar with Buber’s work, the I-Thou relation is a mode of living that is contrasted with another mode centered on the connection between an I and an It.  Both modes of living, the I-Thou and the I-It, are, according to Buber, the two ways that human beings can address existence; the two modes of living required for a complete and fulfilled human being.  The I-It mode encompasses the world of experience and sensation; treating entities as discrete objects to know about or to serve some use.  The I-Thou mode on the other hand encompasses the world of relations itself, where the entities involved are not separated by some discrete boundary, and where a living relationship is acknowledged to exist between the two; this mode of existence requires one to be an active participant rather than merely an objective observer.

It is Buber’s contention that modern life has entirely ignored the I-Thou relation, which has led to a feeling of unfulfillment and alienation from the world around us.   The first mode of existence, that of the I-It, involves our acquiring data from the world, analyzing and categorizing it, and then theorizing about it; and this leads to a subject-object separation, or an objectification of what is being experienced.  According to Buber, modern society almost exclusively uses this mode to engage with the world.  In contrast, with the I-Thou relation the I encounters the object or entity such that both are transformed by the relation; and there is a type of holism at play here where the You or Thou is not simply encountered as a sum of its parts but in its entirety.  To put it another way, it’s as if the You encountered were the entire universe, or that somehow the universe existed through this You.

Since this concept is a little nebulous, I think the best way to summarize Buber’s main philosophical point here is to say that we human beings find meaning in our lives through our relationships, and so we need to find ways of engaging the world such as to maximize our relationships with it; and this is not limited to forming relationships with fellow human beings, but with other animals, inanimate objects, etc., even if these relationships differ from one another in any number of ways.

I actually find some relevance between Buber’s “I and Thou” conception and Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that given an infinite amount of time and a finite number of ways that matter and energy can be arranged, anything that has ever happened or that ever will happen, will recur an infinite number of times.  In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, he mentions how the concept of eternal recurrence was, to him, horrifying and paralyzing.  But, he also concluded that the desire for an eternal return or recurrence would show the ultimate affirmation of one’s life:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.

The reason I find this relevant to Buber’s conception is two-fold: first of all, the fact that the universe is causally connected makes the universe inseparable to some degree, where each object or entity could be seen to, in some sense, represent the rest of the whole; and secondly, if one is to wish for the eternal recurrence, then they have an attitude toward the world that is non-resistant, and that can learn to accept the things that are out of one’s control.  The universe effectively takes on the character of fate itself, and offers an opportunity to a being such as ourselves, to have a kind of “faith in fate”; to have a relation of trust with the universe as it is, as it once was, and as it will be in the future.

Now the kind of faith I’m speaking of here isn’t a brand that contradicts reason or evidence, but rather is simply a form of optimism and acceptance that colors one’s expectations and overall experience.  And since we are a part of this universe too, our attitude towards it should in many ways reflect our overall relation to it; which brings us back to Buber, where any encounter I might have with the universe (or any “part” of it) is an encounter with a You, that is to say, it is an I-Thou relation.

This “faith in fate” concept I just alluded to is a good segue to return back to the relation between Job and his God within Hebraism, as it was a relation of never-ending faith.  But importantly, as Barrett points out, this faith of Job’s takes on many shapes including that of anger, dismay, revolt, and confusion.  For Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…but I will maintain my own ways before him.”  So Job’s faith is his maintaining a form of trust in his Creator, even though he says that he will also retain his own identity, his dispositions, and his entire being while doing so.  And this trust ultimately forms the relation between the two.  Barrett describes the kind of faith at play here as more fundamental and primary than that which many modern-day religious proponents would lay claim to.

“Faith is trust before it is belief-belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of a Church with which later religious history obscures this primary meaning of the word.  As trust, in the sense of the opening up of one being toward another, faith does not involve any philosophical problem about its position relative to faith and reason.  That problem comes up only later when faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems.  Faith as a concrete mode of being of the human person precedes faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition.”

Although I see faith as belief as fundamentally flawed and dangerous, I can certainly respect the idea of faith as trust, and consequently I can respect the idea of faith as a concrete mode of being; where this mode of being is effectively an attitude of openness taken towards another.  But, whereas I agree with Barrett’s claim that truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition, in the sense that a basis and desire for truth are needed prior to evaluating the truth value of any proposition, I don’t believe one can ever justifiably make the succession from faith as trust to faith as belief for the simple reason that if one has good reason to trust another, then they don’t need faith to mediate any beliefs stemming from that trust.  And of course, what matters most here is describing and evaluating what the “Hebrew man of faith” consists of, rather than criticizing the concept of faith itself.

Another interesting historical development stemming from Hebraism pertains to the concept of faith as it evolved within Protestantism.  As Barrett tells us:

“Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face confrontation of man with his God, but could produce only a pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this original Biblical faith…Protestant man would never have dared confront God and demand an accounting of His ways.  That era in history had long since passed by the time we come to the Reformation.”

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Christianity actually developed as a syncretism between Hebraism and Hellenism; the two very cultures under analysis in this chapter.  By combining Jewish elements (e.g. monotheism, the substitutionary atonement of sins through blood-magic, apocalyptic-messianic resurrection, interpretation of Jewish scriptures, etc.) with Hellenistic religious elements (e.g. dying-and-rising savior gods, virgin birth of a deity, fictive kinship, etc.), the cultural diffusion that occurred resulted in a religion that was basically a cosmopolitan personal salvation cult.

But eventually Christianity became a state religion (after the age of Constantine), resulting in a theocracy that heavily enforced a particular conception of God onto the people.  Once this occurred, the religion was now fully contained within a culture that made it very difficult to question or confront anyone about these conceptions, in order to seek justification for them.  And it may be that the intimidation propagated by the prevailing religious authorities became conflated with an attribute of God; where a fear of questioning any conception of God became integrated in a theological belief about God.

Perhaps it was because the primary conceptions of God, once Christianity entered the Medieval Period, were more externally imposed on everybody rather than discovered in a more personal and introspective way (even if unavoidably initiated and reinforced by the external culture), thus externalizing the attributes of God such that they became more heavily influenced by the perceptibly unquestionable claims of those in power.  Either way, the historical contingencies surrounding the advent of Christianity involved sectarian battles with the winning sect using their dogmatic authority to suppress the views (and the Christian Gospels/scriptures) of the other sects.  And this may have inhibited people from ever questioning their God or demanding justification for what they interpreted to be God’s actions.

One final point in this section that I’d like to highlight is in regard to the concept of knowledge as it relates to Hebraism.  Barrett distinguishes this knowledge from that of the Greeks:

“We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.  It is not the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know.  This kind of knowledge a man has only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowledge.”

I may not entirely agree with Barrett here, but any disagreement is only likely to be a quibble over semantics, relating to how he and I define noetic and how we each define knowledge.  The word noetic actually derives from the Greek adjective noētikos which means “intellectual”, and thus we are presumably considering the intellectual knowledge found in Hebraism.  Though this knowledge may not be derived from reason alone, I don’t think (as Barrett implies above) that it’s even possible to have any noetic content without at least some minimal use of reason.  It may be that the kind of intellectual content he’s alluding to is that which results from a kind of synthesis between reason and emotion or intuition, but it would seem that reason would still have to be involved, even if it isn’t as primary or dominant as in the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.

With regard to how Barrett and I are each defining knowledge, I must say that just as most other philosophers have done, including those going all the way back to Plato, one must distinguish between knowledge and all other beliefs because knowledge is merely a subset of all of one’s beliefs (otherwise one would be saying that any belief whatsoever is considered knowledge).  To distinguish knowledge as a subset of one’s beliefs, my definition of knowledge can be roughly defined as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by having made successful predictions and/or successfully accomplishing goals through the use of said recalled patterns.”

My conception of knowledge also takes what one might call unconscious knowledge into account (which may operate more automatically and less explicitly than conscious knowledge); as long as it is acquired information that allows you to accomplish goals and make successful predictions about the causal structure of your experience (whether internal feelings or other mental states, or perceptions of the external world), it counts as knowledge nevertheless.  Now there may be different degrees of reliability and usefulness of different kinds of knowledge (such as intuitive knowledge versus rational or scientific knowledge), but those distinctions don’t need to be parsed out here.

What Barrett seems to be describing here as a Hebraistic form of knowledge is something that is deeply embodied in the human being; in the ways that one lives their life that don’t involve, or aren’t dominated by, reason or conscious abstractions.  Instead, there seems to be a more organic process involved of viewing the world and interacting with it in a manner relying more heavily on intuition and emotionally-driven forms of expression.  But, in order to give rise to beliefs that cohere with one another to some degree, to form some kind of overarching narrative, reason (I would argue) is still employed.  There’s still some logical structure to the web of beliefs found therein, even if reason and logic could be used more rigorously and explicitly to turn many of those beliefs on their head.

And when it comes to the Hebraistic conception of God, including the passionate adhesion in faith to a Being whom one can never intellectually know (as Barrett puts it), I think this can be better explained by the fact that we do have reason and rationality, unlike most other animals, as well as cognitive biases such as hyperactive agency detection.  It seems to me that the Hebraistic God concept is more or less derived from an agglomeration of the unknown sources of one’s emotional experiences (especially those involving an experience of the transcendent) and the unpredictable attributes of life itself, then ascribing agency to that ensemble of properties, and (to use Buber’s terms) establishing a relationship with that perceived agency; and in this case, the agent is simply referred to as God (Yahweh).

But in order to infer the existence of such an ensemble, it would seem to require a process of abstracting from particular emotional and unpredictable elements and instances of one’s experience to conclude some universal source for all of them.  Perhaps if this process is entirely unconscious we can say that reason wasn’t at all involved in it, but I suspect that the ascription of agency to something that is on par with the universe itself and its large conjunction of properties which vary over space and time, including its unknowable character, is more likely mediated by a combination of cognitive biases, intuition, emotion, and some degree of rational conscious inference.  But Barrett’s point still stands that the noetic content in Hebraism isn’t dominated by reason as in the case of the Greeks.

2. Greek Reason

Even though existential philosophy is largely a rebellion against the Platonic ideas that have permeated Western thought, Barrett reminds us that there is still some existential aspect to Plato’s works.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising once one realizes that he actually began his adult life aspiring to be a dramatic poet.  Eventually he abandoned this dream undergoing a sort of conversion and decided to dedicate the rest of his life toward a search for wisdom as per the inspiration of Socrates.  Even though he engaged in a life long war against the poets, he still maintained a piece of his poetic character in his writings, including up to the end when he wrote about the great creation myth, Timaeus.

By far, Plato’s biggest contribution to Western thought was his differentiating rational consciousness from the rest of our human psyche.  Prior to this move, rationality was in some sense subsumed under the same umbrella as emotion and intuition.  And this may be one of the biggest changes to how we think, and one that is so often taken for granted.  Barrett describes the position we’re in quite well:

“We are so used today to taking our rational consciousness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so immersed in its operations, this it is hard at first for us to imagine how momentous was this historical happening among the Greeks.  Steeped as our age is in the ideas of evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea that consciousness itself is something that has evolved through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still evolving.  Only in this century, through modern psychology, have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory.”

Barrett’s mention of evolution is important here, because I think we ought to distinguish between the two forms of evolution that have affected how we think and experience the world.  On the one hand, we have our biological evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone dramatic changes in terms of the level of consciousness we actually experience and the degree of causal complexity that the brain can model; and on the other hand, we have our cultural evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone a number of changes in terms of the kinds of “programs” we run on it, how those programs are run and prioritized, and how we process and store information in various forms of external hardware.

In regard to biological evolution, long before our ancestors evolved into humans, the brain had nothing more than a protoself representation of our body and self (to use the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s terminology); it had nothing more than an unconscious state that served as a sort of basic map in the brain tracking the overall state of the body as a single entity in order to accomplish homeostasis.  Then, beyond this protoself there evolved a more sophisticated level of core consciousness where the organism became conscious of the feelings and emotions associated with the body’s internal states, and also became conscious that her feelings and thoughts were her own, further enhancing the sense of self, although still limited to the here-and-now or the present moment.  Finally, beyond this layer of self there evolved an extended consciousness: a form of consciousness that required far more memory, but which brought the organism into an awareness of the past and future, forming an autobiographical self with a perceptual simulator (imagination) that transcended space and time in some sense.

Once humans developed language, then we began to undergo our second form of evolution, namely culture.  After cultural evolution took off, human civilization led to a plethora of new words, concepts, skills, interests, and ways of looking at and structuring the world.  And this evolutionary step was vastly accelerated by written language, the scientific method, and eventually the invention of computers.  But in the time leading up to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and finally the advent of computers and the information age, it was arguably Plato’s conceptualization of rational consciousness that paved the way forward to eventually reach those technological and epistemological feats.

It was Plato’s analysis of the human psyche and his effectively distilling the process of reason and rationality from the rest of our thought processes that allowed us to manipulate it, to enhance it, and to explore the true possibilities of this markedly human cognitive capacity.  Aristotle and many others since have merely built upon Plato’s monumental work, developing formal logic, computation, and other means of abstract analysis and information processing.  With the explicit use of reason, we’ve been able to overcome many of our cognitive biases (serving as a kind of “software patch” to our cognitive bugs) in order to discover many true facts about the world, allowing us to unlock a wealth of knowledge that had previously been inaccessible to us.  And it’s important to recognize that Plato’s impact on the history of philosophy has highlighted, more than anything else, our overall psychic evolution as a species.

Despite all the benefits that culture has brought us, there has been one inherent problem with the cultural evolution we’ve undergone: a large desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  That is to say, our culture has evolved far, far faster than our biology ever could, and thus our biology hasn’t kept up with, or adapted us to, the cultural environment we’ve been creating.  And I believe this is a large source of our existential woes; for we have become a “fish out of water” (so to speak) where modern civilization and the way we’ve structured our day-to-day lives is incredibly artificial, filled with a plethora of supernormal stimuli and other factors that aren’t as compatible with our natural psychology.  It makes perfect sense then that many people living in the modern world have had feelings of alienation, loneliness, meaninglessness, anxiety, and disorientation.  And in my opinion, there’s no good or pragmatic way to fix this aside from engineering our genes such that our biology is able to catch up to our ever-changing cultural environment.

It’s also important to recognize that Plato’s idea of the universal, explicated in his theory of Forms, was one of the main impetuses for contemporary existential philosophy; not for its endorsement but rather because the idea that a universal such as “humanity” was somehow more real than any actual individual person fueled a revolt against such notions.  And it wasn’t until Kierkegaard and Nietzsche appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century where we saw an explicit attempt to reverse this Platonic idea; where the individual was finally given precedence and priority over the universal, and where a philosophy of existence was given priority over one of essence.  But one thing the existentialists maintained, as derived from Plato, was his conception that philosophizing was a personal means of salvation, transformation, and a concrete way of living (though this was, according to Plato, best exemplified by his teacher Socrates).

As for the modern existentialists, it was Kierkegaard who eventually brought the figure of Socrates back to life, long after Plato’s later portrayal of Socrates, which had effectively dehumanized him:

“The figure of Socrates as a living human presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and search.  It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Socrates-the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely a professor in an academy-as his precursor in existential thinking…In the earlier, so-called “Socratic”, dialogues the personality of Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradually, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece for Plato’s increasingly systematic views…”

By the time we get to Plato’s student, Aristotle, philosophy had become a purely theoretical undertaking, effectively replacing the subjective qualities of a self-examined life with a far less visceral objective analysis.  Indeed, by this point in time, as Barrett puts it: “…the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest.”

As in all cases throughout history, we must take the good with the bad.  And we very likely wouldn’t have the sciences today had it not been for Plato detaching reason from the poetic, religious, and mythological elements of culture and thought, thus giving reason its own identity for the first time in history.  Whatever may have happened, we need to try and understand Greek rationalism as best we can such that we can understand the motivations of those that later objected to it, especially within modern existentialism.

When we look back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, we find a fairly balanced perspective of human nature and the many motivations that drive our behavior.  But, in evaluating all the possible goods that humans can aim for, in order to derive an answer to the ethical question of what one ought to do above all else, Aristotle claimed that the highest life one could attain was the life of pure reason, the life of the philosopher and the theoretical scientist.  Aristotle thought that reason was the highest part of our personality, where one’s capacity for reason was treated as the center of one’s real self and the core of their identity.  It is this stark description of rationalism that diffused through Western philosophy until bumping heads with modern existentialist thought.

Aristotle’s rationalism even permeated the Christianity of the Medieval period, where it maintained an albeit uneasy relationship between faith and reason as the center of the human personality.  And the quest for a complete view of the cosmos further propagated a valuing of reason as the highest human function.  The inherent problems with this view simply didn’t surface until some later thinkers began to see human existence and the potential of our reason as having a finite character with limitations.  Only then was the grandiose dream of having a complete knowledge of the universe and of our existence finally shattered.  Once this goal was seen as unattainable, we were left alone on an endless road of knowledge with no prospects for any kind of satisfying conclusion.

We can certainly appreciate the value of theoretical knowledge, and even develop a passion for discovering it, but we mustn’t lose sight of the embodied, subjective qualities of our human nature; nor can we successfully argue any longer that the latter can be dismissed due to a goal of reaching some absolute state of knowledge or being.  That goal is not within our reach, and so trying to make arguments that rely on its possibility is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

So now we must ask ourselves a very important question:

“If man can no longer hold before his mind’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of the bios theoretikos, the theoretical life, which has fashioned the destiny of Western man for millennia?”

I would argue that the most important goal for philosophy has been and always will be the quest for discovering as many moral facts as possible, such that we can attain eudaimonia as Aristotle advocated for.  But rather than holding a life of reason as the greatest good to aim for, we should simply aim for maximal life fulfillment and overall satisfaction with one’s life, and not presuppose what will accomplish that.  We need to use science and subjective experience to inform us of what makes us happiest and the most fulfilled (taking advantage of the psychological sciences), rather than making assumptions about what does this best and simply arguing from the armchair.

And because our happiness and life fulfillment are necessarily evaluated through subjectivity, we mustn’t make the same mistakes of positivism and simply discard our subjective experience.  Rather we should approach morality with the recognition that we are each an embodied subject with emotions, intuitions, and feelings that motivate our desires and our behavior.  But we should also ensure that we employ reason and rationality in our moral analysis, so that our irrational predispositions don’t lead us farther away from any objective moral truths waiting to be discovered.  I’m sympathetic to a quote of Kierkegaard’s that I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act.”

I agree with Kierkegaard here, in that moral imperatives are the most important topic in philosophy, and should be the most important driving force in one’s life, rather than simply a drive for knowledge for it’s own sake.  But of course, in order to get clear about what one must do, one first has to know a number of facts pertaining to how any moral imperatives are best accomplished, and what those moral imperatives ought to be (as well as which are most fundamental and basic).  I think the most basic axiomatic moral imperative within any moral system that is sufficiently motivating to follow is going to be that which maximizes one’s life fulfillment; that which maximizes one’s chance of achieving eudaimonia.  I can’t imagine any greater goal for humanity than that.

Here is the link for part 5 of this post series.

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 2: “The Encounter with Nothingness”)

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In the first post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism, where Barrett gives a brief description of what he believes existentialism to be, and the environment it evolved within.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

Ch. 2 – The Encounter With Nothingness

Barrett talks about the critical need for self-analysis, despite the fact that many feel that this task has already been accomplished and that we’ve carried out this analysis exhaustively.  But Barrett sees this as contemporary society’s running away from the facts of our own ignorance.  Modern humankind, it seems to Barrett, is in even more need to question their identity for we seem to understand ourselves even less than when we first began to question who we are as a species.

1. The Decline of Religion

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, religion as a whole has been on the decline.  This decrease in religiosity (particularly in Western civilization) became most prominent during the Enlightenment.  As science began to take off, the mechanistic structure and qualities of the universe (i.e. its laws of nature) began to reveal themselves in more and more detail.  This in turn led to a replacement of a large number of superstitious and supernatural religious beliefs about the causes for various phenomena with scientific explanations that could be empirically verified and tested.  Throughout this process, as theological explanations became replaced more and more with naturalistic explanations, the presumed role of God and the Church began to evaporate.  Thus, at the purely intellectual level, we underwent a significant change in terms of how we viewed the world and subsequently how we viewed the nature of human beings and our place in the world.

But, as Barrett points out:

“The waning of religion is a much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of man’s total psychic life…Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual’s life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual.”

We can see here how the role of religion has changed to some degree from medieval times to the present day.  Rather than simply being a set of beliefs that identified a person with a particular group and which had soteriological, metaphysical, and ethical significance to the believer (as it is more so in modern times), it used to be a complete system or a total solution for how one was to live their life.  And it also provided a means of psychological stability and coherence by providing a ready-made narrative of the essence of man; a sense of familiarity and a pre-defined purpose and structure that didn’t have to be constructed from scratch by the individual.

While the loss of the Church involved losing an entire system of dogmatic teachings, symbols, and various rites and sacraments, the most important loss according to Barrett was the loss of a concrete connection to a transcendent realm of being.  We were now set free such that we had to grapple with the world on our own, with all its precariousness, and to deal head-on with the brute facts of our own existence.

What I find most interesting in this chapter is when Barrett says:

“The rationalism of the medieval philosophers was contained by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were altogether beyond the grasp of human reason, but were nevertheless powerfully real and meaningful to man as symbols that kept the vital circuit open between reason and emotion, between the rational and non-rational in the human psyche.”

And herein lies the crux of the matter; for Barrett believes that religion’s greatest function historically was its serving as a bridge between the rational and non-rational elements of our psychology, and also its serving as a barrier that limited the effective reach and power of our rationality over the rest of our psyches and our view of the world.  I would go even further to suggest that it may have allowed our emotional expression to more harmoniously co-exist and work with our reason instead of primarily being at odds with it.

I agree with Barrett’s point here in that religion often promulgates ideas and practices that appeal to many of our emotional dispositions and intuitions, thus allowing people to express certain emotional states and to maintain comforting intuitions that might otherwise be hindered or subjugated by reason and rationality.  And it has also provided a path for reason to connect to the unreasonable to some degree; as a means of minimizing the need to compartmentalize rationality from the emotional or irrational influences on a person’s belief systems.  By granting people an opportunity to combine reason and emotion in some way, where this reason could be used to try and make some sense of emotion and to give it some kind of validation without having to reject reason completely, religion has been effective (historically anyway) in helping people to avoid the discomfort of rejecting beliefs that they know to be reasonable (many of these beliefs at least) while also being able to avoid the discomfort of inadequate emotional/non-rational expression.

Once religion began to go by the wayside, due in large part to the accumulated knowledge acquired through reason and scientific progress, it became increasingly difficult to square the evidence and arguments that were becoming more widely known with many of the claims that religion and the Church had been propagating for centuries.  Along with this growing invalidation or loss of credibility came the increased need to compartmentalize reason and rationality from emotionally and irrationally-derived beliefs and experiences.  And this difficulty led to a decline in religiosity for many, which was accompanied with the loss in any emotional and irrational/non-rational expression that religion had once offered the masses.  Once reason and rationality expanded beyond a certain threshold, it effectively popped the religious bubble that had previously contained it, causing many to begin to feel homeless, out of place, and in many ways incomplete in the new world they now found themselves living in.

2. The Rational Ordering of Society

The organization of our lives has been, historically at least, a relatively organic process where it had a kind of self-guiding, pragmatic, and intuitive structure and evolution.  But once we approached the modern age, as Barrett points out, we saw a drastic shift toward an increasingly rational form of organization, where efficiency and a sort of technical precision began to dominate the overall direction of society and the lives of each individual.  The rise of capitalism was a part of this cultural evolutionary process (as was, I would argue, the Industrial Revolution), and only further enhanced the power and influence of reason and rationality over our day-to-day lives.

The collectivization and distribution of labor involved in the mass production of commodities and various products had taken us entirely out of our agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots.  We no longer lived off of the land so to speak, and were no longer ensconced within the kinds of natural scenery while performing the types of day-to-day tasks that our species had adapted to over its long-term evolutionary history.  And with this collectivization, we also lost a large component of our individuality; a component that is fairly important in human psychology.

Barrett comments on how we’ve accepted modern society as normal, relatively unaware of our ancestral roots and our previous way of life:

“We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past.”

And he goes on to talk about how our ratcheting forward in terms of technological progress and any mechanistic societal re-structuring is what gives us our incredible power over our environment but at the cost of feeling rootless and without any concrete sense of feeling, when it’s needed now more than ever.

Perhaps a more interesting point he makes is with respect to how our increased mechanization and collectivization has changed a fundamental part of how our psyche and identity operate:

“Not only can the material wants of the masses be satisfied to a degree greater than ever before, but technology is fertile enough to generate new wants that it can also satisfy…All of this makes for an extraordinary externalization of life in our time. “

And it is this externalization of our identity and psychology, manifested in ever-growing and ever-changing sets of material objects and information flow, that is interesting to ponder over.  It reminds me somewhat of Richard Dawkins’ concept of an extended phenotype, where the effects of an organism’s genes aren’t merely limited to the organism’s body, but rather they extend into how the organism structures its environment. While this term is technically limited to behaviors that have a direct bearing on the organism’s survival, I prefer to think of this extended phenotype as encompassing everything the organism creates and the totality of its behaviors.

The reason I mention this concept is because I think it makes for a useful analogy here.  For in the earlier evolution of organisms on earth, the genes’ effects or the resulting phenotypes were primarily manifested as the particular body and bodily behavior of the organism, and as organisms became more complex (particularly those that evolved brains and a nervous system), that phenotype began to extend itself into the abilities of an organism to make external structures out of raw materials found in its environment.  And more and more genetic resources were allotted to the organism’s brain which made this capacity for environmental manipulation possible.  As this change occurred, the previous boundaries that defined the organism vanished as the external constructions effectively became an extension of the organism’s body.  But with this new capacity came a loss of intimacy in the sense that the organism wasn’t connected to these external structures in the same way it was connected to its own feelings and internal bodily states; and these external structures also lacked the privacy and hidden qualities inherent in an organism’s thoughts, feelings, and overall subjective experience.

Likewise, as we’ve evolved culturally, eventually gaining the ability to construct and mass-produce a plethora of new material goods, we began to dedicate a larger proportion of our attention on these different external objects, wanting more and more of them well past what we needed for survival.  And we began to invest or incorporate more of ourselves, including our knowledge and information, in these externalities, forcing us to compensate by investing less and less in our internal, private states and locally stored knowledge.  Now it would be impractical if not impossible for an organism to perform increasingly complex behaviors and to continuously increase its ability to manipulate its own environment without this kind of trade-off occurring in terms of its identity, and how it distributes its limited psychological resources.

And herein lies the source of our seemingly fractured psyche: the natural selection of curiosity, knowledge accumulation, and behavioral complexity for survival purposes has become co-opted for just about any purpose imaginable, since the hardware and schema required for the former has a capacity that transcends its evolutionary purpose and that transcends the finite boundaries, the guiding constraints, and the essential structure of the lives we once had in our evolutionary past.  Now we’ve moved beyond what used to be a kind of essential quality and highly predictable trajectory of our lives and of our species, and we’ve moved into the unknown; from the realm of the finite and the familiar to the seemingly infinite realm of the unknown.

A big part of this externalization has manifested itself in the new ways we acquire, store, and share information, such as with the advent of mass media.  As Barrett puts it:

“…journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand.  Information usually consists of half-truths, and “knowledgability” becomes a substitute for real knowledge.  Moreover, popular journalism has by now extended its operations into what were previously considered the strongholds of culture-religion, art, philosophy…It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the secondhand from the real thing, until most people end by forgetting there is such a distinction.”

I think this ties well into what Barrett mentioned previously when he talked about how modern civilization is built on increasing levels of abstraction.  The very information we’re absorbing, in order to make sense of and deal with a large aspect of our contemporary world, is second hand at best.  The information we rely on has become increasingly abstracted, manipulated, reinterpreted, and distorted.  The origin of so much of this information is now at least one level away from our immediate experience, giving it a quality that is disconnected, less important, and far less real than it otherwise would be.  But we often forget that there’s any epistemic difference between our first-hand lived experience and the information that arises from our mass media.

To add to Barrett’s previous description of existentialism as a reaction against positivism, he also mentions Karl Jaspers’ views of existentialism, which he described as:

“…a struggle to awaken in the individual the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life, in the fact of the great modern drift toward a standardized mass society.”

Though I concur with Jaspers’ claim that modernity has involved a shift toward a standardized mass society in a number of ways, I also think that it has provided the means for many more ways of being unique, many more possible talents and interests for one to explore, and many more kinds of goals to choose from for one’s life project(s).  Collectivization and distribution of labor and the technology that has precipitated from it have allowed many to avoid spending all day hunting and gathering food, making or cleaning their clothing, and other tasks that had previously consumed most of one’s time.

Now many people (in the industrialized world at least) have the ability to accumulate enough free time to explore many other types of experiences, including reading and writing, exploring aspects of our existence with highly-focused introspective effort (as in philosophy), creating or enjoying vast quantities of music and other forms of art, listening to and telling stories, playing any number of games, and thousands of other activities.  And even though some of these activities have been around for millennia, many of them have not (or there was little time for them), and of those that have been around the longest, there were still far fewer choices than what we have on offer today.  So we mustn’t forget that many people develop a life-long passion for at least some of these experiences that would never have been made possible without our modern society.

The issue I think lies in the balance or imbalance between standardization and collectivization on the one hand (such that we reap the benefits of more free time and more recreational choices), and opportunities for individualistic expression on the other.  And of the opportunities that exist for individualistic expression, there is still the need to track the psychological consequences that result from them so we can pick more psychologically fulfilling choices; so that we can pick choices that better allow us to keep open that channel between reason and emotion and between the rational and the non-rational/irrational that religion once provided, as Barrett mentioned earlier.

We also have to accept the fact that the findings in science have largely dehumanized or inhibited the anthropomorphization of nature, instead showing us that the universe is indifferent to us and to our goals; that humans and life in general are more of an aberration than anything else within a vast cosmos that is inhospitable to life.  Only after acknowledging the situation we’re in can we fully appreciate the consequences that modernity has had on upending the comforting structure that religion once gave to humans throughout their lives.  As Barrett tell us:

“Science stripped nature of its human forms and presented man with a universe that was neutral, alien, in its vastness and force, to his human purposes.  Religion, before this phase set in, had been a structure that encompassed man’s life, providing him with a system of images and symbols by which he could express his own aspirations toward psychic wholeness.  With the loss of this containing framework man became not only a dispossessed but a fragmentary being.”

Although we can’t unlearn the knowledge that has caused religion to decline including that which has had a bearing on the questions dealing with our ultimate meaning and purpose, we can certainly find new ways of filling the psychological void felt by many as a result of this decline.  The modern world has many potential opportunities for psychologically fulfilling projects in life, and these opportunities need to be more thoroughly explored.  But, existentialist thought rightly reminds us of how the fruits of our rational and enlightened philosophy have been less capable of providing as satisfying an answer to the question “What are human beings?” as religion once gave.  Along with the fruits of the Enlightenment came a lack of consolation, and a number of painful truths pertaining to the temporal and contingent nature of our existence, previously thought to possess both an eternal and necessary character.  Overall, this cultural change and accumulation of knowledge effectively forced humanity out of its comfort zone.  Barrett described the situation quite well when he said:

“In the end, he [modern man] sees each man as solitary and unsheltered before his own death.  Admittedly, these are painful truths, but the most basic things are always learned with pain, since our inertia and complacent love of comfort prevent us from learning them until they are forced upon us.”

Modern humanity then, has become alienated from God, from nature, and from the complex social machinery that produces the goods and services that he both wants and needs.  Even worse yet however, is the alienation from one’s own self that has occurred as humans have found themselves living in a society that expects each of them to perform some specific function in life (most often not of their choosing), and this leads to society effectively identifying each person as this function, forgetting or ignoring the real person buried underneath.

3.  Science and Finitude

In this last section of chapter two, Barrett discusses some of the ultimate limitations in our use of reason and in the scope of knowledge we can obtain from our scientific and mathematical methods of inquiry.  Reason itself is described as the product of a creature “whose psychic roots still extend downward into the primeval soil,” and is thus a creation from an animal that is still intimately connected to an irrational foundation; an animal still possessing a set of instincts arising from its evolutionary origins.

We see this core presence of irrationality in our day-to-day lives whenever we have trouble trying to employ reason, such as when it conflicts with our emotions and intuitions.  And Barrett brings up the optimism in the confirmed rationalist and their belief that they may still be able to one day overcome all of these obstacles of irrationality by simply employing reason in a more clever way than before.  Clearly Barrett doesn’t share this optimism of the rationalist and he tries to support his pessimism by pointing out a few limitations of reason as suggested within the work of Immanuel Kant, modern physics, and mathematics.

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he lays out a substantial number of claims and concepts relating to metaphysics and epistemology, where he discusses the limitations of both reason and the senses.  Among other things, he claims that our reason is limited by certain a priori intuitional forms or predispositions about space and time (for example) that allow us to cognize any thing at all.  And so if there are any “things in themselves”, that is, real objects underlying whatever appears to us in the external world, where these objects have qualities and attributes that are independent of our experience, then we can never know anything of substance about these underlying features.  We can never see an object or understand it in any way without incorporating a large number of intuitional forms and assumptions in order to create that experience at all; we can never see the world without seeing it through the limited lens of our minds and our body’s sensory machinery.

For Kant, this also means that we may often use reason erroneously to make unjustified claims of knowledge pertaining to the transcendent, particularly within metaphysics and theology.  When reason is applied to ideas that can’t be confirmed through sensory experience, or that lie outside of our realm of possible experience (such as the idea that cause and effect laws govern every interaction in the universe, something we can never know through experience), it leads to knowledge claims that it can’t justify.  Another limitation of reason, according to Kant, is that it operates through an a priori assumption of unification in our experience, and so the categories and concepts that we infer to exist based on reason are limited by this underlying unifying principle.  Science has added to the rigidity and specificity of this unification, by going beyond what we’ve unified through our unmodified experience (i.e. seeing the sun “rise” and “set” every day), that is, experience without the use of any instruments, telescopes, microscopes, etc. (where the use of these instruments has helped give us more data showing that the earth rotates on an axis rather than the sun revolving around the earth).  Nevertheless, unification is the ultimate goal of reason whether applied with or without a strict scientific method.

Then within physics, we find another limitation in terms of our possible understanding of the world.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed us that we are unable to know complementary parameters pertaining to a particle with an arbitrarily high level of precision.  We eventually hit a limit where, for example, if we know the position of a particle (such as an electron) with a high degree of accuracy at some particular time, then we’re unable to know the momentum of that particle with the same accuracy.  The more we know about one complementary parameter, the less we know about the other.  Barrett describes this discovery in physics as showing that nature may be irrational and chaotic at its most fundamental level and then he says:

“What is remarkable is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experimentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the ordinary and banal fact of our human limitations emerges.”

This is indeed interesting because for a long while many rationalists and positivists held that our potential knowledge was unlimited (or finite, yet complete) and that science was the means to gain this open-ended or complete knowledge of the universe.  Then quantum physics delivered a major blow to this assumption, showing us instead that our knowledge is inherently limited based on how the universe is causally structured.  However, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a human limitation per se, but a limitation of any conscious system acquiring knowledge in our universe.  It wouldn’t matter if humans had different brains, better technology, or used artificial intelligence to perform the computations or measurements.  There is simply a limit on what can ever be measured; a limit on what can ever be known about the state of any system that is being studied.

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem likewise showed how there were inherent limitations in any mathematical formulation of number theory that was rich enough where, no matter how large or seemingly complete its set of axioms are, if it is consistent, then there will be statements that can’t be proven or disproven within that formulation.  Likewise, the consistency of any formulation of number theory can’t be proven by the formulation itself; rather, it depends on assumptions that lie outside of that formulation.  However, once again, contrary to what Barrett claims, I don’t think this should be taken to be a human limitation of reason, but rather a limitation of mathematics generally.

Regardless, I concede Barrett’s overarching point that, in all of these cases (Kant, physics, and mathematics), we are still running into scenarios where we are unable to do something or to know something that we may have previously thought we could do or thought we could know, at least in principle.  And so these discoveries did run counter to the beliefs of many that thought that humans were inherently unstoppable in these endeavors of knowledge accumulation and in our ability to create technology capable of solving any problem whatsoever.  We can’t do this.  We are finite creatures with finite brains, but perhaps more importantly, our capacities are also limited by what knowledge is theoretically available to any conscious system trying to better understand the universe.  The universe is inherently unknowable in at least some respects, which means it is unpredictable in at least some respects.  And unpredictability doesn’t sit well with humans intent on eliminating uncertainty, eliminating the unknown, and trying to have a coherent narrative to explain everything encountered throughout one’s existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 1: “The Advent of Existentialism”)

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William Barrett’s Irrational Man is a nice exposition on existential philosophy which begins by exploring the state of modern humanity and philosophy and tracing its roots from ancient Greece, its development through the Medieval period and the Enlightenment, all the way to the mid-twentieth century.  He explores what he believes to be the primary cultural sources of existentialism and then surveys the contributions of perhaps the four most prominent existential philosophers: namely, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.  I’d like to explore Barrett’s book here in more detail and I’m going to break this down into an analysis of every section and chapter, with each chapter analyzed within a separate blog post.  Below is the first post of this series; Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism.

Part I: “The Present Age”

Ch. 1 – The Advent of Existentialism

Early on, Barrett gives a brief description of positivism, which he describes as a philosophical theory which holds that science is not only what distinguishes our post-Enlightenment civilization from all others, but it also claims that science should be the ultimate ruler of human life, to which Barrett remarks that science has never held this role before nor could it given the details of our psychology as human beings.  It’s true that science has never held this role before and it’s also true that the way we generally use science is ill-suited for the job of guiding our day-to-day lives in order to meet all of our psychological needs.

However, I think it would be mistaken to say that the scientific method, and empirical methods generally, can’t be used (even in principle) to determine (or to help determine) the choices one ought to make in one’s life.  While science as an enterprise isn’t generally used in this way (we tend to use it to solve more specific technical challenges and to determine well-defined mechanisms underlying various phenomena), we shouldn’t simply assume that the knowledge we’re able to gain from it will never include information pertaining to our decision-making, our preferences and values, and our ultimate goals in life.  On top of this, if one wanted to know whether or not a life “ruled by” science could meet all of one’s psychological needs, one could only test this hypothesis by employing (at the very least) an informal version of the scientific method.  So in some rudimentary sense, science and its methods (of testing hypotheses and building upon the results of such testing) are unavoidable as they pervade our lives and are inseparable from any falsifiable inquiry that arises therein.

On the flip-side, we shouldn’t assume that science on its own is capable of anything at all, let alone meeting all of our needs as a species.  What I mean by this, and one thing that I’m sure Barrett would have agreed with, is that the use of science itself and the desire to use it for some particular aim first requires an underlying set of philosophical views such as some kind of an epistemology, an ethics, etc.  This also means that science as a concept and as an instrument for gaining knowledge shouldn’t be criticized if it leads to undesirable consequences; rather it is the philosophical views of the scientist(s) undertaking some research project, and/or the philosophical views of the people that use that knowledge once it has been discovered, that should be criticized accordingly.

Barrett goes on to say:

“Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaningless.’ “

And I couldn’t agree more that this kind of positivist thinking is flawed and incomplete as we need to take introspection, intuition, and raw experience into any complete account of our reality.  The German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg actually echoed similar sentiments in his later life where he said:

“The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.”

In Heisenberg’s quote here we can see the relevance of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, and how they explored different conceptions of meaning as well as the importance of (what Nietzsche called) perspectivism, or striving to look at the world as a whole or at any particular phenomena from as many viewpoints as possible without becoming trapped in the constraints of our language and culture.  In order to avoid dogmatism, we must be willing to at least consider different ontologies and different ways of looking at our own existence, our place in the world, and what is most important to us.  And although science shouldn’t be excluded from our sources of meaning or from our methods of determining what is and what is not meaningful, people shouldn’t expect these concepts to be restricted to the domain of science.

So what is existentialism then, according to Barrett?  Well, he sees it as a philosophical movement (and a kind of revolt) against the oversimplification of man (human beings) as assumed within positivism.  It seeks to replace this fractured view of man and instead gather all the facets of the human condition and assemble them into one coherent picture of man.  And it does so even when it requires acknowledging the darker and more questionable parts of our nature and existence; by exploring and accepting the uglier side of humanity that many in the Enlightenment tried to discount and leave by the wayside.

This post-Enlightenment view of man, which pictured man as inherently rational, went largely unchallenged for more than a hundred years (until Kierkegaard), and aside from Kierkegaard’s works which Barrett explores, I think we could also perhaps credit the work of Charles Darwin and his On the Origin of Species as well as his The Descent of Man, for firmly challenging any prevailing doubts about our animalistic and irrational origins.  Once it became apparent that human beings were the distant cousins of other primates and the more distant cousins of fish and reptiles and so on, it became that much harder to distance ourselves from the irrationality that pervades the rest of the animal kingdom.  And so it became harder to deny that we still had some level of irrationality at the core of our being, even if it was accompanied with a capacity for reason and rationality.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

Virtual Reality & Its Moral Implications

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There’s a lot to be said about virtual reality (VR) in terms of our current technological capabilities, our likely prospects for future advancements, and the vast amount of utility that we gain from it.  But, as it is with all other innovations, with great power comes great responsibility.

While there are several types of VR interfaces on the market, used for video gaming or various forms of life simulation, they do have at least one commonality, namely the explicit goal of attempting to convince the user that what they are experiencing is in fact real in at least some sense.  This raises a number of ethical concerns.  While we can’t deny the fact that even reading books and watching movies influences our behavior to some degree, VR is bound to influence our behavior much more readily because of the sheer richness of the qualia and the brain’s inability to distinguish significant differences between a virtual reality and our natural one.  Since the behavioral conditioning schema that our brain employs has evolved to be well adapted to our natural reality, any virtual variety that increasingly approximates it is bound to increasingly affect our behavior.  So we need to be concerned with VR in terms of how it can affect our beliefs, our biases, and our moral inclinations and other behaviors.

One concern with VR is the desensitization to, or normalization of, violence and other undesirable or immoral behaviors.  Many video games have been criticized over the years for this very reason, with the claim that they promote similar behaviors in the users of those games (most especially younger users with more impressionable minds).  These claims have been significantly validated by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, where they have both taken firm stances against children and teens playing violent video games, as a result of the accumulated research and meta studies showing a strong link between violent video gaming and increased aggression, anti-social behavior, and sharp decreases in moral engagement and empathy.

Thus, the increasingly realistic nature of VR and the ever-consistent increase in the capacities one has at their disposal within such a virtual space, is bound to exacerbate these types of problems.  If people are able to simulate rape or pedophilia among other morally reprehensible actions and social taboos, will they too become more susceptible to actually engaging in these behaviors once they leave the virtual space and re-enter the real world?  Even if they don’t increase their susceptibility to perform those behaviors, what does such a virtual escapade do to that person’s moral character?  Are they more likely to condone those behaviors (even if they don’t participate in them directly), or to condone other behaviors that have some kind of moral relevance or cognitive overlap with one another?

On the flip side, what if it was possible to use VR as a therapeutic tool to help cure pedophilia or other behavioral problems?  What if one was able to simulate rape, pedophilia or otherwise to reduce their chances of performing those acts in the real world?  Hardly anyone would argue that a virtual rape or molestation is anywhere near as abhorrent or consequential as real instances of such crimes would be, horrific crimes made against real human beings.  While this may only apply to a small number of people, it is at least plausible that such a therapeutic utility would make the world a better place if it prevented an actual rape or other crime from taking place.  If certain people have hard-wired impulses that would normally ruin their lives or the lives of others if left unchecked, then it would be prudent if not morally obligatory to do what we can to prevent such harms from taking place.  So even though this technology could make the otherwise healthy user begin to engage in bad behaviors, it could also be used as an outlet of expression for those already afflicted with similar impulses.  Just as they’ve used VR to help cure anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, and other pathologies, by exposing people to various stimuli that help them to overcome their ills, so too may VR possibly provide a cure for other types of mental illnesses and aggressive predispositions such as those related to murder, sexual assault, etc.

Whether VR is used as an outlet for certain behaviors to prevent them from actually happening in the real world, or as a means of curing a person from those immoral inclinations (where the long term goal is to eventually no longer need any VR treatment at all), there are a few paths that could show some promising results to decrease crime and so forth.  But, beyond therapeutic uses, we need to be careful about how these technologies are used generally and how that usage will increasingly affect our moral inclinations.

If society chose to implement some kind of prohibition to limit the types of things people could do in these virtual spaces, that may be of some use, but beyond the fact that this kind of prohibition would likely be difficult to enforce, it would also be a form of selective prohibition that may not be justified to implement.  If one chose to prohibit simulated rape and pedophilia (for example), but not prohibit murder or other forms of assault and violence, then what would justify such a selective prohibition?  We can’t simply rely on an intuition that the former simulated behaviors are somehow more repugnant than the latter (and besides, many would say that murder is just as bad if not worse anyway).  It seems that instead we need to better assess the consequences of each type of simulated behavior on our behavioral conditioning to see if at least some simulated activities should be prohibited while allowing others to persist unregulated.  On the other hand, if prohibiting this kind of activity is not practical or if it can only be implemented by infringing on certain liberties that we have good reasons to protect, then we need to think about some counter-strategies to either better inform people about these kinds of dangers and/or to make other VR products that help to encourage the right kinds of behaviors.

I can’t think of a more valuable use for VR than to help us cultivate moral virtues and other behaviors that are conducive to our well-being and to our living a more fulfilled life.  Anything from reducing our prejudices and biases through exposure to various simulated “out-groups” (for example), to modifying our moral character in more profound ways through artificial realities that can encourage the user to help others in need and to develop habits and inclinations that are morally praiseworthy.  We can even use this technology (and have already to some degree) to work out various moral dilemmas and our psychological response to them without anybody actually dying or getting physically hurt.  Overall, VR certainly holds a lot of promise, but it also poses a lot of psychological danger, thus making it incumbent upon us to talk more about these technologies as they continue to develop.

Karma & Socio-Psychological Feedback Loops

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Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an old friend.  At one point during our conversation, he basically asked me if I believed in Karma (that good things happen to good people, etc.).  My answer to that question was yes and no.  No, in the sense that I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural moral causation, which is what Karma technically is.  But on the other hand, I do believe that there are other naturalistic mechanisms that produce similar effects which would be indistinguishable from what people would call Karma.  Specifically, I believe that there are various psychological, cognitive and social factors that ultimately produce these kinds of effects on one’s life.  So I decided to expand on this topic a little bit in this post.

First of all, the level of optimism or pessimism that a person has will undoubtedly affect not only their overall worldview but also the course that their life takes over time in profound ways that are often taken for granted or overlooked.  If a person has a positive attitude, they will tend to invite others (whether explicitly or not) into their social circle not only due to their personality being inviting and comforting, but also because that person is more likely to be productive in helping others.  Furthermore, if they are also altruistic, other people will often take notice of this, and are more likely to solidify a relationship with them.  Likewise, since altruism is often reciprocated, then a person that is altruistic is more likely to have help returned to them when they need it most.  So in short, a person that is positive and altruistic is more likely to continue along a positive path in their life’s course simply because their attitude and less selfish behavior serve as catalysts to solidify more meaningful relationships with others, thus allowing them to increasingly gain more safety nets and mutual socioeconomic benefits as time progresses.

One can see how this principle would operate in the converse scenario, that is, with a person that is generally pessimistic and selfish.  This person is clearly more likely to deter new meaningful relationships due to their uninviting personality (especially if they are anti-social), due to how they make others feel generally, and due to them only focusing on their own best interests.  Others are likely to notice this behavior, and if that pessimistic and selfish person needs help at some point in time, they aren’t nearly as likely to receive any.  This in turn will make it more likely for that person to fall into a downward spiral, where their lack of help from others is likely to cause that person to be increasingly resentful, bitter, negative, and even less likely to help others around them then they were before.  So we can see how a person’s attitude and behavioral trends often have a catalyzing effect on their life’s course by effectively amplifying their behavior in a reciprocated fashion from those around them.  That is, whatever socio-psychological environment is being nurtured by that person (whether good or bad) will most likely be reciprocated thus creating a feedback loop that can become amplified over time.

There appears to be a sort of avalanche effect that can occur, where even a tiny chaotic deviation from the present state can lead to very large differences later on.  Most of us have heard of the so-called “Butterfly Effect” where tiny perturbations in a system can lead to huge changes that are increasingly amplified over time, and this socio-psychological feedback loop is perhaps one of the most important illustrations of such an effect.  Even tiny actions or events that influence our perspective (or the perspective of those around us) can often lead to dramatic changes later on in our lives.

Another important point regarding the effect of optimism and pessimism within this socio-psychological feedback loop is the placebo/nocebo effect, where if one believes that either positive or negative outcomes are more likely, their physiology and cognitive states can change in accordance with those expectations.  People that strongly believe that they will fail to reach a goal or that have some other negative expectation (such as getting sick) are more likely to self-manifest that expectation (i.e. the “nocebo” effect) since their expectations not only influence their perception for the worse, but also because they often channel their focus and attention on that negative belief (which can increase stress levels and thus impair cognitive faculties and overall health) and the belief can become reinforced in other ways since the brain’s cognitive biases often function to reinforce whatever beliefs we have in the first place, even if they are unjustified, incorrect, or ultimately bad for our well-being.  Following along this line of reasoning, we can see how a person that strongly believes that they will in fact achieve a goal or some other positive state are more likely to do so.  Thus, the placebo or nocebo effect can directly result from optimistic or pessimistic perspectives and are often reinforced by our own cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms.

It seems that even a small boost in encouragement, optimism, or altruism, can lead to a cascade effect of improved social relationships (thus providing more socioeconomic stability) and an improvement in overall well-being through various socio-psychological feedback loops.  Furthermore, our attitude or perspective can also lead to various placebo effects that further reinforce these feedback loops.  In any case, we should all recognize and appreciate how even small perturbations in our attitude as well as in our behavior toward others can have profound changes in our lives.  Even small acts of kindness or morale boosts can go a long way to changing the lives of others, as well as our own.  So to conclude, I would argue that if any kind of Karma seems to exists in this world, those Karmic effects are naturally brought about by the kinds of mechanisms I’ve described here.

The Placebo Effect & The Future of Medicine

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The placebo effect has been known for a long time, and doctors and medical practitioners have been exploiting its efficacy for a number of ailments.  Whether it is sugar pills, a fake surgery, or even prayer, the power of belief and the psychological effect on our physiology is real and undeniable.  While the placebo effect may have its roots (or been most thoroughly exploited) in various religions, through the power of belief, it has been used by non-religious medical practitioners for quite some time now, and it is starting to be investigated much more thoroughly in cognitive neuroscience, and psychology.  Scientists are beginning to design and implement new techniques that take advantage of this effect of the mind helping to heal the body.  It’s become a fascinating area of research with some potentially huge benefits that may prompt a significant paradigm shift in the future of medicine.

A major advantage of placebos (at least those in the form of a pill or injection) is that they don’t require the expensive R&D and drug-synthesis manufacturing processes that traditional treatments do, which means that there are likely billions of dollars that can be saved in the future, as well as the very important benefit of greater environmental sustainability, by consuming less energy and creating less hazardous waste in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.  In the case of placebic-surgeries (which have been successfully performed), if surgeons simply have to make a far less complicated incision or two, along with some other protocol and ambiance considerations and requirements to produce the desired effect, then the costs of the far simpler operation are drastically reduced, as well as any chances of malpractice or other long-term complications resulting from the surgery.

One thing that will have to be considered as we start making greater use of these placebic treatments (specifically “drugs” and surgeries), is how the pricing and costs associated with placebo options will be decided for a patient.  Will placebos be as expensive as normal drugs (if they are comparably effective), or will the decreased cost of placebo manufacturing offset/reduce the cost of other drugs so that the average trip to the doctor will be cheaper for everyone?  As always, we will likely have to continue battling with pharmaceutical companies and or medical practitioners that take advantage of the cost savings just to increase their own profit margins while giving no trickle-down savings to the patient.  In the grander scheme of things, having healthier people at the same cost that we currently have is still better, but nevertheless, we can only hope that these discoveries will continue to reduce the costs for the patient as well.

As for other types of placebos, such as meditation, prayer, various rituals, etc., since these placebos do not require any physical mediums or materials per se (or at least not in many cases), they are relatively inexpensive, if not entirely free in some cases.  Modern medicine, however, is also making more use of similar placebo methods, that is, placebos that don’t require the intake of a chemical nor require any surgery.  In fact, one can certainly argue that modern medicine has been utilizing these “non-material” placebos for quite some time already.  For example, various psychological treatments have been used to help heal people with all kinds of ailments, many of which are psycho-somatically induced, and all of which can be exacerbated by hypochondria, pessimism, and other causes of stress — and the placebo effect is certainly a likely contributing factor in many of these successful treatments.  These kinds of treatments could very well be applied in many (if not all) other cases that aren’t currently considered “psychological” ailments.  Putting this all together, I think we are going to start seeing a shift in medicine where psychology, cognitive and neuroscience are going to combine with modern “material” medicine to form a more obvious hybrid.  This integration will be significant, as currently many medical practitioners or schools of thought within medicine have a large divide between what are believed to be either psychological or physical ailments.  In reality though, it appears that every ailment is actually a combination of the two that can be more effectively treated, when both aspects are treated rather than merely one or the other.  After all, the brain and the rest of the body operate as a single unit, and so they should be treated as such.

Another positive discovery relating to the placebo effect is the fact that even if people know that they are being given a placebo, it is still effective, as long as they believe that the placebo is effective.  A more common concern regarding the placebo effect is that it will lose all efficacy if patients are informed that they are receiving some kind of placebo, however it turns out that this isn’t the case at all.  To give an example, in a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and they were informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”  Then the researchers found that despite being aware that they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average.  This seems to imply that it is the belief in efficacy of a particular treatment that houses the placebic potential for healing, regardless of the substrate used to implement it, and this solves a lot of ethical complications regarding the desired disclosure that a patient is receiving a placebo.

If the belief in the efficacy of a placebo is the primary factor for the placebo’s effectiveness, this would imply that stronger belief will produce a stronger placebo effect.  So it appears that one of the most major challenges in producing ever-more effective treatments within this domain, is going to be finding ways to increase the belief in a treatment’s effectiveness (as well as other psychologically beneficial factors including being generally optimistic, reducing stress, and other factors that haven’t yet been discovered).  It may even be possible one day for this “belief” maximization (or the neurological effect that it causes) to be accomplished by physically altering the brain through various types of electrical stimulation or other neurologically-based treatments, so a person wouldn’t need to be convinced of anything at all.  On a related note, I’d like to mention that we also need to consider that the opposite effect, that is, the “nocebo” effect, also exists and presumably for the same psychological reasons.  That is, by a person believing that something will harm them or that they are getting sick, even if there is no actual pathogen or physical medium to produce the illness, they can actually get sick and make things much worse.  For a powerful example, there were chemo-therapy participants in a certain study, some of which only got a placebo, and they still developed nausea and had their hair fall out (alopecia) because of their expectations of the treatment.  So the placebo effect works both ways, and this means that medical treatment will also likely change with regard to finding new ways of countering the “bad news” of a diagnosis, etc., possibly through the same kinds of psychological and neurological techniques.

Nobody is sure exactly when the placebo effect was first discovered, but it was likely unknowingly discovered many thousands of years ago in various cultures with particular religious beliefs, including those that involved prayer and faith healing, shamans and other medicine men, etc.  Without seeing any material cause or knowing what was causing its efficacy (i.e. dynamics in the brain), people no doubt chalked up many positive effects to the supernatural, whether by the interventions of some god or a number of gods, magic, etc.  So this appears to be one of many examples of how natural selection favors not only certain genes, but also certain memes.  If people began to spread certain religious memes (ideas) that promoted self-healing by utilizing the power of belief, they would be more likely to survive, and this would be yet another factor in explaining why religions formed, why they’ve been as ubiquitous as they have, and why they’ve propagated for so long throughout human history.  To be sure, it could have been the case that humans long ago experienced the placebo effect (without knowing it) and this led to the development of certain religious rituals or beliefs (because the cause was mis-attributed or unknown), or it could be that certain religious beliefs that were formed for other reasons happened to produce a placebo effect (and/or to strengthen it by other psychological factors).  Either way, it was a very valuable discovery indeed.  Now that we are starting to better understand the real physiological/neurological/psychological factors that produce the placebo (and nocebo) effect, we can continue advancing a scientific world-view and continue to increase our well being in the process.

Christianity: A Theological & Moral Critique

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Previously I’ve written several posts concerning religion, including many of the contributing factors that led to the development and perpetuation of religion (among them, our cognitive biases and other psychological driving forces) and the various religious ideas contained within.  I’ve also written a little about some of the most common theological arguments for God, as well as the origin and apparent evolution of human morality.  As a former Christian, I’ve also been particularly interested in the religion of Christianity (or to be more accurate, the various Christianities that have existed throughout the last two millennia), and as a result I’ve previously written a few posts relevant to that topic including some pertaining to historical critical analyses.  In this post, I’d like to elaborate on some of the underlying principles and characteristics of Christianity, although some of these characteristics will indeed also apply to the other Abrahamic religions, and indeed to other non-Abrahamic religions as well.  Specifically, I’d like to examine some of the characteristics of a few of the most primary religious tenets and elements of Christian theology, with regard to some of their resulting philosophical (including logical and ethical) implications and problems.

What Do Christians Believe?

There are a number of basic beliefs that all Christians seem to have in common.  They believe in a God that is all-loving, omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent (yet somehow transcendent from an actual physical/materialistic omnipresence).  This is a God that they must love, a God that they must worship, and a God that they must also fear.  They believe that their God has bestowed upon them a set of morals and rules that they must follow, although many of the rules originating from their religious predecessor, Judaism (as found in the Old Testament of the Bible), are often ignored and/or are seen as superceded by a “New Covenant” created through their messiah, believed to be the son of God, namely Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, the sacrifice of their purported messiah is believed to have saved mankind from their original sin (which will be discussed further later in this post), and this belief in Jesus Christ as the spiritual savior of mankind is believed by Christians to confer to them an eternal life in heaven after they die.  Whichever list of rules is accepted by any particular sect or denomination of Christianity, along with their own unique interpretation of those rules (and the rest of their scripture for that matter), those rules and scriptural interpretations are to be followed without question as a total solution for how to conduct themselves and live their lives.  If they do so, they will be granted a reward of eternal paradise in heaven.  If they do not, they will suffer the wrath of God and be punished severely by an eternity of torture in hell.  Let’s examine some of these specific attributes of the Christian God.

Omnibenevolence
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This God is supposedly all-loving and omnibenevolent.  If we simply look at the Old Testament of the Bible we can see numerous instances of this God implementing, ordaining, or condoning: theft, rape, slavery (and the beating of slaves), sexism, sexual-orientationism (and the murder of homosexuals), child abuse, filicide, murder, genocide, cannibalism, and one of the most noteworthy, vicarious redemption, though this last example may not be as obviously immoral as the rest which is why I mention it in more detail later in this post.  Granted, some of these acts were punishments for disobedience, but this is hardly an excuse worth defending at all, let alone on any moral grounds.  Furthermore, many of the people harmed in this way were innocent, some of them children, which had no responsibility over what their parents did, nor over what society they were brought up in and the values bestowed upon them therein.
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Most Christians that are aware of these morally reprehensible actions make excuses for them including: the need to examine those actions within the cultural or historical “context” that they occurred (thus implying that their God’s morals aren’t objective or culturally independent), the claim that whatever their God does is considered moral and good by definition (which either fails to address the Euthyphro Dilemma or fails to meet a non-arbitrary or rational standard of goodness), and/or that some or all of the violent and horrible things commanded in the Old Testament were eventually superceded or nullified by a “New Covenant” with a new set of morals.  In any case, we mustn’t forget about the eternal punishment for those that do not follow God’s wishes.  Does a God that threatens his most prized creation with eternal torture — the worst fate imaginable — and with no chance of defense or forgiveness after death, really possess omnibenevolence and an all-loving nature?  Some people may have a relatively easy life where circumstances have easily encouraged living a life that fits in line with Christianity, but many are not afforded those circumstances and thus there is no absolute fairness or equality for all humans in “making this choice”.
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Another point worth considering is the fact that the Christian God didn’t just skip creating the physical world altogether in the first place.  Didn’t God have the power to simply have all humans (or all conscious creatures for that matter) exist in heaven without having to live through any possible suffering on Earth first?  Though life is worth living for many, there has been a lot of suffering for many conscious creatures, and regardless of how good one’s life is on Earth, it could never compare to existence in heaven (according to Christians).  There’s no feasible or coherent reason to explain why God didn’t do this if he is truly omnipotent and omnibenevolent.  It appears that this is either an example of something God didn’t have the power to do, which is an argument against his omnipotence (see next section for more on this attribute), or God was able to do this but didn’t, which is an argument against his omnibenevolence.  Christians can’t have it both ways.
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Christians must employ a number of mental gymnastic tricks in order to reconcile all of these circumstances with the cherished idea that their God is nevertheless all-loving and omnibenevolent.  I used to share this view as well, though now I see things quite differently.  What I see from these texts is exactly what I would expect to find from a religion invented by human beings (a “higher” evolved primate) living in a primitive, patriarchal, and relatively uneducated culture in the middle east.  Most noteworthy however, is the fact that we see their morals evolve along with other aspects of their culture over time.  Just as we see all cultures and their morals evolve and change over time in response to various cultural driving forces, whether they are the interests of those in power or those seeking power, and/or the ratcheting effect of accumulating knowledge of the consequences of our actions accompanied by centuries of ethical and other philosophical discourse and deep contemplation.  Man was not made in God’s image — clearly, God was made in man’s image.  This easily explains why this God often acts sexist, petty, violent, callous, narcissistic, selfish, jealous, and overwhelmingly egotistical, and it also explains why this God changes over time into one that begins to promote at least some of the fruits gained in philosophy as well as some level of altruism and love.  After all, these are all characteristics of human beings, not only as we venture from a morally immature childhood to a more morally mature adulthood, but also as we’ve morally evolved over time, both biologically and culturally.
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Omniscience and Omnipotence
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Next, I mentioned that Christians believe their God to be omniscient and omnipotent.  First of all, these are mutually exclusive properties.  If their God is omniscient, this generally is taken to mean that he knows everything there is to know, including the future.  Not only does he know the future of all time within our universe, this god likely knows the future of all it’s actions and intentions.  If this is the case, then we have several problems posed for Christian theology.  If God knows the future of his own actions, then he is unable to change them, and therefore fails to be omnipotent.  Christians may argue that God only desires to do what he does, and therefore has no need to change his mind.  Nevertheless, he is still entirely unable to do so, even if he never desires to do so.  I’ll also point out that in order for God to know what it feels like to sin, including thinking blasphemous thoughts about himself, he ceases to remain morally pure.  Obviously a Christian can use the same types of arguments that are used to condone God’s heinous actions in the Bible (specifically the Old Testament), namely that whatever God does is good and morally perfect, although we can see the double-standard here quite clearly.
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The second and perhaps more major problem for Christian theology regarding the attribute of omniscience is the problem of free will and the entire biblical narrative.  If God knows exactly what is going to happen before it does, then the biblical narrative is basically just a story made up by God, and all of history has been like a sort of cosmic or divinely created “movie” that is merely being played out and couldn’t have happened any other way.  If God knows everything that is going to happen, then he alone is the only one that could change such a fate.  However, once again, he is unable to do so if he knows what he is going to do before he does it.  God, in this case, must have knowingly created the Devil and all of the evil in the world.  God knows who on Earth is going to heaven and who is going to hell, and thus our belief or disbelief in God or our level of obedience to God is pre-determined before we are even born.  Overall, we can have no free will if God is omniscient and knows what we will do before we do it.
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My worldview, which is consistent with science, already negates free will as free will can’t exist with the laws of physics governing everything as they do (regardless of any quantum randomness).  So my view regarding free will is actually coherent with the idea of a God that knows the future, so this isn’t a problem for me.  It is however, a problem for Christians because they want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too.  To add to this dilemma, even if God was not omniscient, that still wouldn’t negate the fact that the only two logical possibilities that exist regarding the future are that it is either predetermined or random (even if God doesn’t know that future).  In either logical possibility, humans still couldn’t have free will, and thus the entire biblical narrative and the entire religion for that matter are invalid regardless of the problem of omniscience.  The only way for humans to have free will is if two requirements are met.  First, God couldn’t have omniscience for the logically necessary reasons already mentioned, and second, humans would have to possess the physically and logically impossible property of self-caused actions and behaviors — where our intentional actions and behaviors would have to be free of any prior causes contributing to said intentions (i.e. our intentions couldn’t be caused by our brain chemistry, our genes, our upbringing and environment, the laws of physics which govern all of these processes, etc.).  Thus, unless we concede that God isn’t omniscient, and that humans possess the impossible ability of causa sui intentions, then all of history, beginning with the supposed “Fall of Man” in the Garden of Eden would have either been predetermined or would have resulted from random causes.  This entails that we would all be receiving a punishment due to an original sin that either God himself instantiated with his own deterministic physical laws, or that was instantiated by random physical laws that God instantiated (even if they appear to be random to God as well) which would have likewise been out of our control.
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Omnipresence
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The Christian God is also described as being omnipresent.  What exactly could this mean?  It certainly doesn’t mean that God is physically omnipresent in any natural way that we can detect.  Rather it seems to mean that God’s omnipresence is almost always invisible to us (though not always, e.g., the burning bush), thus transcending the physical realm with an assumption of a supernatural or metaphysical realm outside of the physical universe, yet somehow able to intervene or act within it.  This to me seems like a contradiction of terms as well since the attribute of omnipresence implied by Christians doesn’t seem to include the natural realm (at least not all the time), but only a transcendent type (all the time).  Christians may argue that God is omnipresent in the natural world, however this defense could only work by changing the definition of “natural” to mean something other than the universe that we can universally and unmistakably detect, and therefore the argument falls short.  However, I only see this as a minor problem for the Christian theology, and since it isn’t as central a precept nor as important a precept as the others, I won’t discuss it further.
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Love, Worship, and Fear
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Though Christians may say that they don’t need to be forced to love, or worship God because they do so willingly, let’s examine the situation here.  The bible instructs Christians to fear God within dozens of different verses throughout.  In fact, Deuteronomy 10:12 reads: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
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It’s difficult for me to avoid noticing how this required love, servitude, worship, and fear of God resembles the effective requirements of some kind of celestial dictator, and one that implements a totalitarian ideology with explicit moral codes and a total solution for how one is to conduct themselves throughout their entire lives.  This dictator is similar to that which I’ve heard of in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, even sharing common principles such as “thought crimes” which a person can never hide given an omniscient God (in the Christian view) that gives them no such privacy.  Likewise with the Orwellian dystopia, the totalitarian attempt to mold us as it does largely forces itself against our human nature (in many ways at least), and we can see the consequences of this clash throughout history, whether relating to our innate predisposition for maintaining certain human rights and freedoms (including various forms of individuality and free expression), maintaining our human sexuality, and other powerful aspects of who we are as a species given our evolutionary history.
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If you were to put many of these attributes of God into a person on Earth, we would no doubt see that person as a dictator, and we would no doubt see the total solution implemented as nothing short of totalitarian.  Is there any escape from this totalitarian implementation?  In the Christian view, you can’t ever escape (though they’d never use the word “escape”) from the authority of this God, even after you die.  In fact, it is after a person dies that the fun really begins, with a fate of either eternal torture or eternal paradise (with the latter only attainable if you’ve met the arbitrary obligations of this God).  While Christians’ views of God may differ markedly from the perspective I’ve described here, so would the perspective of a slave that has been brainwashed by their master through the use of fear among other psychological motivations (whether that person is conscious of their efficacy or not).  They would likely not see themselves as a slave at all, even though an outsider looking at them would make no mistake in making such an assertion.
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Vicarious Redemption
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Another controversial concept within Christianity is that of vicarious redemption or “substitutionary atonement”.  There are a number of Christian models that have been formulated over the years to interpret the ultimate meaning of this doctrine, but they all involve some aspect of Jesus Christ undergoing a passion, crucifixion and ultimately death in order to save mankind from their sins.  This was necessary in the Christian view because after the “Fall of Man” beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (after they were deceived and tempted to disobey God by a talking snake), all of humanity was supposedly doomed to both physical and spiritual death.  Thankfully, say the Christians, in his grace and mercy, God provided a way out of this dilemma, specifically, the shedding of blood from his perfect son.  So through a human sacrifice, mankind is saved.  This concept seems to have started with ancient Judaic law, specifically within the Law of Moses, where God’s chosen people (the Jews) could pay for their sins or become “right in God’s eyes” through an atonement accomplished through animal sacrifice.
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Looking in the Old Testament of the Bible at the book of Leviticus (16:1-34) we see where this vicarious redemption or substitutionary atonement began, which I will now paraphrase.  Starting with Moses (another likely mythological being according to many scholars), we read that God told him that his brother Aaron (who recently had two of his own sons die when they “drew too close to the presence of the Lord”) could only enter the shrine if he bathed, wore certain garments, and then brought with him a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.  He was also to take two goats from the Israelite community to make expiation for himself and for his household.  Then Aaron was to take the two goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the “Tent of Meeting” and place lots upon the goats (i.e. to randomly determine each of the goat’s fate in the ritual), one marked for the Lord and the other marked for “Azazel” (i.e. marked as a “scapegoat”).  He was to bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering, while the goat designated by lot for “Azazel” shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness to die.  Then he was to offer his “bull of sin offering” by slaughtering it, followed by taking some of the blood of the bull and sprinkling it with his finger several times.  Then he was to slaughter the “people’s goat of sin offering”, and do the same thing with the goat’s blood as was done with the bull’s.  Then a bit later he was to take some more blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the alter and then sprinkle the rest of the blood with his finger seven times (this was meant to “purge the shrine of uncleanness”).  Afterward, the live goat was to be brought forward and Aaron was to lay his hands upon the head of the goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, which was meant to put those sins on the head of the goat.  Then the goat was to be sent off into the desert to die.  Then Aaron was to offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself as well as for the people.  The fat of the sin offering was to be “turned into smoke” on the altar.  Then the “bull of sin offering” and “goat of sin offering” (whose blood was brought in to purge the shrine) were to be removed from their camp, and their hides, flesh, and dung were to be consumed in a fire.  And this became a law for the Israelites to atone for their sins, by performing this ritual once a year.
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Animal sacrifice has been a long practiced ritual in most religions (at one time or another), where it has been primarily used as a form of blood magic to appease the gods of that particular culture and religion, and has in fact been found in the history of almost all cultures throughout the world.  So it’s not surprising in the sense that this barbaric practice had a precedent and was near ubiquitous in a number of cultures, however it was most prevalent in the primitive cultures of the past.  Not surprisingly, these primitive cultures had far less knowledge about the world available to comprise their worldview.  As a result, they invoked the supernatural and a number of incredibly odd rituals and behaviors.  We can see some obviously questionable ethics involved here with this type of practice: an innocent animal suffers and/or dies in order to compensate for the guilty animal’s transgressions.  Does this sound like the actions of a morally “good” God?  Does this sound like a moral philosophy that involves personal responsibility, altruism, and love?  I’ll leave that to the reader to decide for themselves, but I think the answer is quite clear.
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It didn’t stop there though, unfortunately.  This requirement of God was apparently only temporary and eventually a human sacrifice was needed, and this came into fruition in the New Testament of the Christian Bible with the stories and myths of a Jewish man (a mix between an apocalyptic itinerant rabbi and a demigod) named Jesus Christ (Joshua/Yeshua) — a man who Christians claim was their messiah, the son of God (and “born of a virgin” as most mythic heroes were), and he was a man who most Christians claim was also God (despite the obvious logical contradiction of this all-human/all-divine duality, which is amplified further in the Trinitarian doctrine).  Along with this new vicarious redemption sacrifice was the creation of a “New Covenant” — a new relationship between humans and God mediated by Jesus Christ.  It should be noted that the earliest manuscripts in the New Testament actually suggest that Jesus was likely originally believed to be a sort of cosmic archangel solely communicating to apostles through divine revelation, dreams, visions, and through hidden messages in the scripture.  Then it appears that Jesus was later euhemerized (i.e. placed into stories in history) later on, most notably in the allegorical and other likely fictions found within the Gospels — although most Christians are unaware of this, as the specific brands of Christianity that have survived to this day mutually assume a historical Jesus.  For more information regarding recent scholarship pertaining to this, please read this previous post.
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Generally, Christians claim that this “New Covenant” was instituted at the “Last Supper” as part of the “Eucharist”.  To digress briefly, the Eucharist was a ritual considered by most Christians to be a sacrament.  During this ritual, Jesus is claimed to have given his disciples bread and wine, asking them to “do this in memory of me,” while referring to the bread as his “body” and the wine as his “blood” (many Christians think that this was exclusively symbolic).  Some Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, and members of The Church of the East) however believe in transubstantiation, where the bread and wine that they are about to eat literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  So to add to the aforementioned controversial religious precepts, we have some form of pseudo or quasi-cannibalism of the purported savior of mankind, the Christian god (along with the allegorical content or intentions, e.g., eating Jesus on the 15th day of the month as Jews would normally have done with the Passover lamb).  The practice of the Eucharist had a precedent in other Hellenistic mystery religions where members of those religions would have feasts/ceremonies where they would symbolically eat the flesh and drink the blood of their god(s) as well, to confer to them eternal life from there (oft) “dying-and-rising” savior gods.  So just like the animal sacrifice mentioned earlier, practices that were the same as or incredibly similar to the Eucharist (including the reward of eternal life) arose prior to Christianity and were likely influential during Christianity’s origin and development.  Overall, Christianity is basically just a syncretism between Judaism and Hellenism anyway, which explains the large number of similarities and overlap between the two belief systems, as these cultures were able to share, mix, and modify these religious ideas over time.
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Returning back to the vicarious redemption, this passion — this incredible agony, suffering, and eventual death of Jesus Christ along with the blood he spilled, we hear, was to reverse humanity’s spiritual death (and forgive us for our sins) once and for all with no more yearly atonement needed.  This was after all the “perfect” sacrifice, and according to Christians, this fate of their supposed messiah was prophesied in their scriptural texts, and thus was inevitable to occur.  So what exactly are we to make of this vicarious redemption through human sacrifice, that God required to happen?  Or the pseudo-cannibalism in the Eucharist for that matter?  There are certainly some good symbolic intentions and implications regarding the idea of a person selflessly performing an altruistic act to save others, and I completely recognize that fact as well.  However, it is something else entirely to assume that one’s transgressions can be born onto another person so that the transgressions are “made clean” or nullified or “canceled out” in some way, let alone through the act of torturing and executing a human being.  In the modern world, if we saw such a thing, we would be morally obligated to stop it.  Not only to prevent that human being from suffering needlessly, but to give that person (if they are willingly submitting themselves to the torture and execution) the proper mental health resources to protect themselves and hopefully to repair whatever psychological ailment that caused such a lapse in their sanity in the first place.
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As for the Eucharist, there’s definitely something to be said about the idea of literally or symbolically eating another human being.  While a symbolic version is generally speaking significantly less controversial, the idea altogether seems to be yet another form of barbaric blood magic (just like the crucifixion, and the non-human animal sacrifice that preceded it).  However, the act of remembrance of Jesus via the Eucharist is an admirable intention and allegory for becoming one with Jesus, and if the food and wine were seen to represent his teachings and message only (and explicitly so), then it wouldn’t be nearly as controversial.  However, given that there is a very obvious intention (in the Gospel according to Mark for example, 14:16-24) to eat Jesus in place of the Passover lamb, the Eucharist is at the very least a controversial allegory, and if it isn’t supposed to be allegorical (or entirely allegorical), this would explain why the belief in transubstantiation (held by many Christians) is as important as it is.
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There are two final things I’d like to mention regarding Jesus Christ’s role in this vicarious redemption.  Let’s assume for the moment, that this act isn’t immoral and view it from a Christian perspective (however irrational that may be).  For one, Jesus knew perfectly well that he was going to be resurrected afterward, and so ultimately he didn’t die the same way you or I would die if we had made the same sacrifice, for we would die forever.  He knew that his death would only be temporary and physical (though many Christians think he was physically as opposed to spiritually resurrected).  If I knew that I would not be resurrected, that would be a much more noble sacrifice for I would be giving up my life indefinitely.  Furthermore, with knowledge of the afterlife, and if I accept that heaven and hell exist, then an even greater sacrifice would be for Jesus to die and go to hell for all eternity, as that would be the greatest possible self-sacrifice imaginable.  However, this wasn’t what happened.  Instead, Jesus suffered (horribly no less), and then died, but only for 3 days, and then he basically became invincible and impervious to any further pain or suffering.  Regardless of how Christians would respond to this point, the fact remains that a more noble sacrifice was possible, but didn’t occur.  The second and last point I’ll mention is the promise offered from the action — that true believers are now granted an eternity in heaven.  One little issue here for Christians is the fact that they don’t know for a fact whether or not God would keep his end of the bargain.  God can do whatever he wants, and whatever he does is morally good in the Christian view — even if that means that he changes his mind and reneges on his promise.  If Christians argue that God would never do this, they are making the assumption that they know with 100% certainty what God will (or will not) do, and this is outside of their available knowledge (again according to the Christian view of not knowing what God is thinking or what he will do).  Just as the rest of the religion goes, the truth of the promise of eternal life itself is based on faith, and believers may end up in hell anyway (it would be up to God either way).  Furthermore, even if all believers did go to heaven, could they not rebel just as Lucifer did when he was an angel in heaven?  Once again, Christians may deny this, but there’s nothing in their scriptures to suggest that this is impossible, especially given the precedent of God’s highest angel doing so in the past.
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Final Thoughts
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I will say that there are a lot of good principles found within the Christian religion, including that of forgiveness and altruism, but there are morally reprehensible things as well, and we should expect that a religion designed by men living long ago carries both barbaric and enlightened human ideas, with more enlightened ideas coming later as the religion co-developed with the culture around it.  Many of the elements we admire (such as altruism and forgiveness for example) exist in large part because they are simply some of the aspects of human nature that evolution favored (since cooperation and social relationships help us to survive many environmental pressures), and this fact also explains why they are seen cross-culturally and do not depend on any particular religion.  Having said that, I will add that on top of our human nature, we also learn new and advantageous ideas over time including those pertaining to morals and ethics, and it is philosophical contemplation and discourse that we owe our thanks to, not any particular religion, even if they endorse those independent ideas.  One of the main problems with religion, especially one such as Christianity, is that it carries with it so many absurd assumptions and beliefs about reality and our existence, that the good philosophical fruits that accompany it are often tainted with dangerous dogma and irrational faith in the unfalsifiable, and this is a serious problem that humanity has been battling for millennia.
I found a quote describing Christianity from a particular perspective that, while offensive to Christians, does shed some light on the overall ludicrous nature of their (and my former) belief system.
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Christianity was described as:
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“The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree”
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Honestly, that quote says it all.  Regarding the Adam and Eve myth, most Christians (let alone most people in general) don’t realize that Eve received more of the blame than Adam did (and women supposedly received the punishment of painful childbirth as a result), based on fallacious reasoning from God.  She received more blame than Adam did, as she received a punishment that Adam did not have to endure and not vice versa (since both men and women would have to endure the punishment meant “for Adam”, that is, difficulty farming and producing food).  It seems that Eve was punished more, presumably because she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge first (or because she was a woman rather than a man), however, what is quite clear to me from reading this story is that Eve was deceived by a highly skilled deceiver (the serpent) that was hell-bent on getting her to eat from the tree.  Adam however, was duped by his wife, a woman made from an insignificant part of his body (his rib), and a woman that was not a highly skilled deceiver as the serpent was.  It seems to me that this gives the expression “Fall of Man” a whole new meaning, as in this case, it seems that women would have become the “head of the household” instead.  Yet, what we see is a double standard here, and it appears that the sexist, patriarchal authors illustrated their true colors quite well when they were devising this myth, and their motivations for doing so were obvious considering the way they had God create Eve (from an insignificant part of Adam, and for the purpose of keeping him company as a subservient wife), and the way they portray her is clearly meant to promote patriarchal dominance.  This is even further illustrated by the implication that God is a male, referred to as “He”, etc., despite the fact that all living animals on Earth are born from a “life producing” or “life creating” female.  It’s nothing but icing on the cake I guess.