"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

New blog.

Stuff is happening again elsewhere.

Friday, September 05, 2008

If anything matters, everything matters

Meaning, meaning, meaning.

We've all done it (here in Minnesota at least). It starts with a fresh snow fall and an empty parking lot. You throw the car into reverse, turn the wheel as far as it will go and hit the gas. Round and round you spin. You may have noticed that even though you have the steering wheel pegged, you never end up repeating the exact same circle twice. There's always a bit of drift—just enough to keep things interesting...

Okay, maybe it's not that interesting. But anyone who's been around here for any length of time knows where I'm going with this. Matt and I have been going round on the meaning of life since the very first (with the help of many others along the way). Indeed, we may well sound like broken records at times. Still there is this "drift," subtle shifts in the direction of the conversation and an unshakable feeling that there is more to be said—that it's still a conversation worth having. Or maybe that's just me. I don't know.

Starting back in July there was a rash of "meaning of life talk" that broke out. First here. Then here. From these two conversations two theories of meaning were purposed (well, more than that actually, but these were the only two that stayed in the discussion):

Alex's Meaning Thesis {AMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is meaningful only if it holds a conceptually significant place in relation to the telos of the whole.

Existentialist Meaning Thesis {EMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is meaningful if it strikes an observer as significant or "weighty" when filtered through one’s life experience.

EMT was then later revised by Matt and became something slightly different. I would like to call the Personal Meaning Thesis:

Personal Meaning Thesis {PMT} =
Something I think is meaningful will have (a) influenced the way I see myself and the world I inhabit, and/or (b)will have been something I've considered valuable (either at the time, or later on).

To begin exploring this I would wish to make two preliminary remarks. First, we should note that there is a epistemological/metaphysical schism running between AMT and EMT/PMT. I will elaborate on this shortly. Secondly, PMT (and from here on I will speak primarily of PMT) is fully able to exist comfortably within AMT. Following from this second observation flows my primary challenge: Can PMT obtain if AMT is rejected? In other words, is talk of personal meaning coherent if we deny any telos or "ultimate purpose" to the whole (i.e. all reality)?[1] It seems to me any serious atheist must face this question. The very credibility of all vigorous denials of nihilism are at stake.

Now, back to this talk of epistemological/metaphysical schisms. This is an important point as it uncovers the fact that our comparison is not a kind for kind, but rather we are dealing with two levels of explanation. AMT is the more ambitious of the two theories as it deals primarily with questions of metaphysical truth (e.g. is love ultimately meaningful? Is striving for justice ultimately significant?). PMT, on the other hand, is a much more modest theory as it works within a more epistemically limited domain. [2] PMT would say, "look, we can't know the nature of ultimate reality in the way AMT seems to desire, thus if we work from what we can know (e.g. I feel a sense of solidarity with those who suffer, etc...) then we can go on to construct a theory of meaning from these basic facts.

This is true so far as it goes and I do not wish to minimize it's legitimacy in any way. The question is, under what circumstances does this legitimacy obtain? PMT cannot answer this question. It simply does not go far enough as a theory of meaning. Allow me to here try and put my finger on the fatal flaw of all PMT type formulations. PMT ultimately ends with an emotional brute fact. The question is then not "why desire a desire," (as I was thought to be suggesting here) but "what's next in questioning this desire?" Is it really an absurd question to ask, what is desire? Is desire itself meaningful?

Here, if held at the exclusion of AMT, PMT is dashed on the rocks of its own inquiry. It's not that this desire in PMT is unable to be questioned in the same way the validity rationality is (discussed here). The validity of desires can be questioned without absurdity, the problem here is that PMT is simply too small to answer the question and thus is a myopic theory of meaning. PMT dwells long and hard on the four-color "welcome to the Rocky Mountains" brochure while refusing to step off the tour bus to witness the sun cresting over glacier crowned peaks.

In the final analysis if we accept AMT and it is true that there is a purposeful telos to the whole of reality (much as the Christian story suggests), then you get PMT as well. Yet if we deny the legitimacy of AMT by arguing that "the whole" does not have a telos, then we have yet to see how this ruptured dam of meaninglessness can be kept from surging back down the canyon of history destroying every supposed village of meaning along it's path. PMT, like everything else, is awash in the flotsam of cosmic waste.

I realize that at one point, Matt, you said that you are not necessarily denying AMT. I'm not altogether sure what you meant by that. Though I do know you had your money on PMT, at least last we talked. I'm not sure whether or not I have succeeded or not, but I have tried here to demonstrate that PMT is dependent upon AMT and the additional premise that "the whole" does indeed have a telos.

If what I have said so far is true, then one of two things can be said from our intuitions of "meaningfulness." 1. Our intuitions regarding meaning are appropriate inklings of the truth that comes both before and behind all history, or 2. these intuitions are simply the Universe making noise for no other reason than the fact that it does. Thus, to speak of "meaning" under 2. seems to entail such a heavily qualified disclaimer that we may as well speak clearly into the mic: All is meaningless.

Thoughts? Pushbacks?

The Factory Thought Experiment
Consider a factory. It sits somewhere out in northern Saskatchewan. The factory is completely automated and no one knows where it came from or who owns it. As a matter of fact it produces absolutely no product, service or output of any kind. It is completely and totally without purpose. It even runs as if by magic, needing no energy source to sustain itself.

Now on a random vacation to the area you are passing by this very odd factory and you notice a sign offering free tours [let us here ignore the suggestion that the purpose of the factory is to provide a location for tours]. Not having anything else planned, you decide to have a look. Once inside, you notice the factory is filled with all manner of frantic, automated activity.

Happening across a particularly complicated little piece of machinery you note the many intricate tasks it seems be be performing. Getting the attention of the tour guide you ask, "What is this little gizmo up to?" (how is it contributing to the telos of the system?)

The tour guide then begins to expound on how it contributes to the larger system of which it is a part. Having provided a satisfactory answer regarding how our little device participates in this system, you ask the obvious question, "okay, but what does that system do?" And so on…

Thus, from inquiring about the one isolated gizmo, one's questions becomes ever more expansive, asking of ever larger systems within the factory. Likewise, each answer must relate the previous system to the next larger system in which it is nested, until finally there is no "next step up" except that of the entire factory itself. To ask this final question exposes the absurdity of the exercise, for, as we have stipulated, the factory itself has no telos—it "just is."

From here we must ask, does this dead end not render questionable any purpose within the previously mentioned systems and relationships? That is to say, did our little gizmo ever relate to the telos of the system of which it was a part? It does not appear that it did, for the only way this purposive relationship could be justified was by appealing to the telos of the system yet above it, and so on…. We have a regress on our hands that must stop with the telos of the factory, which, by definition, has none. Thus, if all those relationships are evacuated of any purpose, does that not also annihilate any significant meaning? It seems to me it does. And if this is true for our little gizmo, how much more so for our own lives?

At least when taken at its best. At its worst this position is held to avoid the uncomfortable implications of AMT in relation to certain metaphysical convictions. Not pointing fingers. I'm just sayin'.

P.S. This post title is shamelessly ripped off from William P. Young's The Shack

Labels: ,

What gives?

It's been a while ay? As life rolls on I've found myself with increasingly little time for continuing ...I was going to say blogging, but, as it turns out, blogging is but one small piece of all that I have little time to keep up. School has been fantastic. I've been throwing myself into my studies and have gotten into the habit of doing upwards of four times the work actually required of me. Last quarter I wrote my term paper on theology and evolution. This quarter it was on hell conceived as universalism, eternal conscious torment and annihilationism. It's been a lot of fun having the time actually do some research.

I also took on a half-time job this spring. I'm now the "youth guy" at our church. It's been tremendously challenging, exciting and scary... but good. That combined with school and the soon to be kid #2 leaves me in a place where I really need to bracket my life in such a way that forces me to give up some things I really love: like talking to you all. Now I'm not saying I'm gone for good. It's more like "few and far between." I guess one benefit of this medium is that it's not like anyone's going anywhere (unless someone's thinking of swearing off the internet). So ya. I guess I just felt that I owed you all some explanation, especially Matt since he continues to keep the home fires burning... even if no one's home half the time. Sorry bud.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Yeshua the annointed one

There's a detailed discussion on the existence of Jesus over at Stephen Law's blog, which visitors here (assuming there still are any) might want to take a look at.

Personally, I've never found the arguments for the divinity of Jesus convincing. All history is a matter of probability, and the probability of Jesus being able to perform miracles because he's an aspect of a divine being given flesh is always going to be much lower than the probability of more mundane explanations*.

(*Assuming you've had no prior contact with said divine being, which would - if itself valid - alter the probability considerably.)

Labels: ,

Monday, August 18, 2008

Atheism, Theology and Creationism

"God, today, no longer represents the same forces as in the beginning of His existence; neither does He direct human destiny with the same Iron hand as of yore. Rather does the God idea express a sort of spiritualistic stimalus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weakness. In the course of human development the God idea has been forced to adapt itself to every phase of human affairs, which is perfectly consistent with the origin of the idea itself."
Watching 'The Genius of Darwin' on Channel 4, I was struck by just how futile the evolution vs creationism debate often seems to be. Dawkins (who presented the documentary) and others like him appear convinced that human beings are essentially rational beings who can be won round to a particular viewpoint because the facts support it. But the show presented plenty of evidence that this simply isn't the case.

While its true that the creationists featured in the documentary certainly displayed a fundamental ignorance of evolutionary theory, it quickly became obvious that clearing up their misconceptions had no real impact on their beliefs. As one of the pupils at the school Dawkins visits in part 1 so concisely explained: It wasn't that he didn't understand evolutionary theory, it was just that his religion told him it was wrong. Through (I assume) a combination of bribes, threats and social pressure, his religious beliefs had managed to shut down a large part of his capacity for critical thought.

This is – what I'd call - “Regressive Theology”. It teaches that the Truth has already been revealed, and all knowledge which challenges it must be rejected. Failure to do so often results in the most extreme punishment conceivable: An eternity of agony and torment. (Not to mention the more immediate ostracism by friends and family).

Due to its nature, regressive theology is (once it's taken hold) generally immune to counter-argument. To doubt is to risk everything. While better education can help prevent regressive theology taking hold of an individual (by aiding the capacity to doubt before it's suppressed), it's next to useless against those already in its influence.

The irony (and hopefully Achilles heel) of such a theology however is that it's actually at war with itself – by rejecting and fighting scientific knowledge, regressive theology is in a position of worshipping the creator while rejecting and fighting the creation. It is in conflict with the very world it claims is divine.

At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps offering the greatest challenge to is counterpart, is “Progressive Theology”. This religious view of the world is built around the idea that understand of (the) God(s) is incomplete and one of the best ways of advancing it is through increasing our knowledge and understanding of “Creation”. In its engagement with the world it welcomes and absorbs breakthroughs in science as shedding further light on the world around us and consequently its creator.

"Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation."
(Tom Paine, The Age of Reason)

For atheists such as myself, progressive theology offers not just the best hope of challenging its regressive form, but also of bringing about an erosion of religious belief – as if theology is built upon the nature of the universe, and the universe is atheistic, then atheism will surely follow, to some degree or other. (Of course, if the universe is theistic, then we can at least look forward to more convincing arguments for theism).

Presenting theology and science as diametrically opposed, as Dawkins often seems to do, risks undermining the progressive strains of the former and thereby strengthening the regressive ones. An unnuanced approach to theology may well be an own goal.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Moral Dilemma



The Joker has wired two ferries up with explosives (that cannot be defused). He announces that in twenty minutes' time both will blow up - unless either of the ferries uses the supplied detonator to blow up the other, in which case the remaining ferry will be allowed to go free.

One ferry is full of civilians (including children). The other full of convicted criminals. They have no way of contacting each other or anyone else.

If anyone attempts to leave the ferry - both will be blown up immediately.

You're on the civilian ferry...

What do you do?

Labels: ,

Friday, August 01, 2008

A-T-H-E-I-S-M... find out what it means to them

(Look at that - you wait ages for a post and then three come along at once. They're like buses.)

There's been a bit of a debate (kicked off by the recent "Questions for atheists" meme) around the blogworld over what the term "atheist" actually denotes. John S. Wilkins of 'Evolving Thoughts' has a thought-provoking post outlining his own views on the matter - which manages to capture the distinction between positive and negative atheism (which seems to split people) quite well.

In summary, he states that:

I think there's a bit of a conundrum here for atheists. Either they have to make a positive claim and exclude agnostics and soi disant deists, or they have to accept they are defined by the religion du jour.

John thinks that atheists should go for the former - positively stating that there are no gods, as opposed to the more agnostic position of simply not accepting religious claims. I can't agree though: The absolutist claim he seems to be arguing for (as an agnostic himself) seems to me to be unsupportable - without some form of absolute knowledge it's impossible to dismiss deistic or more nebulous theistic claims about the nature of the universe. It may be that the evidence for the existence of a creator is incredibly weak, but that doesn't mean we can rule out the possibility altogether, merely that we have to pronounce it extremely unlikely - which seems to bring us closer to the second position.

And it's this position I find myself quite comfortable in: When I say that I'm an atheist, I don't intend to say anything more than that I've found religious arguments so far unconvincing (I am "non-theistic"). It is not so much a claim about the universe as a claim about how the universe appears to me now. I see no way (or need) to deny the possibility that at some point I'll encounter evidence that will change my mind.

Nor in my reading of people such as Dawkins or Hitchens do I see them as advancing much more than a similar position - neither completely rule out that possibility of God (in some form), they simply make the case that all arguments for God so far have been flawed.

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reason and preference

(Note: In one of those annoying moments of (dis?)sycrhonicity I've finished up this post just as Alex has posted his piece below - make sure you don't overlook it! It's not as though I'm that desperate for attention that I need to try and overshadow other people)

According to many people in the field, modern philosophy starts with Rene Descartes, or more specifically with one of the most famous phrases in the history of philosophy: "I think, therefore I am."

Descartes hoped to establish the foundational beliefs of human understanding – to find that which could not be doubted without contradiction. To do this he set aside millennia of accumulated human knowledge and went back to (what he believed to be) the central, unquestionable, truth at the heart of all experience.

I think.
Only that which exists can think.
Therefore, I exist.

However, this is not the fundamental truth that Descartes supposed it to be – it actually presupposes two, quite crucial, things:

1) Reason

Without reason, no argument can be made – or at least no argument worth making.

2) Preference

Without preferences (with which I include desire, value, etc.) there can be no motivation for making an argument.

Descarte (and all sceptics) must assume not only the existence of these two things, but also their validity – as otherwise there are no grounds for making any argument. Without reason, we have no means to, without preference we have no grounds to. This holds regardless of our metaphysics – as metaphysics itself is impossible without them. They are fundamental aspects of our existence and as such largely beyond analysis – once we start to question them our means to and grounds for doing so are pulled from under us: If we question reason, then we cannot construct a rational argument against it. If we question preference, then we have no grounds for preferring it to be valid.

Labels: ,

The crushing weight of silence

Note: I sent this out yesterday via Facebook to a few of the regulars on this blog. Matt suggested I post it (perhaps apple will offer me millions to use it?). Seeing as I have little time to post anything else, perhaps there's nothing wrong with a little personal dramma!


For those of you all who may be used to seeing me on IM, MSN, FB, etc... you may have noticed a peculiar lack of my presence these last few weeks. I thought I'd offer a bit of an explanation. I do this not because I worry that you've missed me (though doubtless, you have), but because this is the sort of story that only finds its meaning in the telling.

That said, my computer is broke. But wait, there's more...

So I show up to my second day on campus two weeks ago. I calmly pull out my super sweet (almost brand spanking new) macbook pro. As I pop open the screen it becomes apparent that all is not well. There is a massive crack all the way across the screen! I figured it must have hit something while in by backpack. After a brief period of shock I decide to suck it up and order a new $300 screen.

Now, I'm staying with my brother-in-law while I'm down at classes so I give him a call to obtain his address so that I can get the screen overnighted to his place. He picks up and I explain the situation to him.... There's an slightly uncomfortable moment of silence on the other end of the phone... "So I take it you didn't get my email then, huh?", he says. Not waiting for me to answer he continues, "I think I may have drove over your computer this morning."


"Ya, I'm pretty sure I did."

"That's impossible! The computer would be mangled had you done that!"

"I dunno, but I think I did."

At this point you may be wondering how the devil my computer found itself in such a place as to make possible the "getting driven over" thing. Briefly: a friend was picking me up for class. He parks on one side of the drive way. I needed to get something in the house. I leave my backpack IN THE YARD next to the drive way; Brother-in-law decides to leave from work; swings wide to avoid friend's car; backs over my back pack containing my lap-top... digital camera... head phones... and ipod. (thankfully, the ipod came out unscathed)

Okay that still leaves me in the position of wondering how it could be that only the screen was cracked after being driven over by a vehicle. As I was later expressing my amazement over this fact the nice boy sitting behind me decided to bring it to my attention that I may be drawing my conclusions a bit prematurely. According to him, my entire lap-top was sort of taking on the shape of a ski jump. After taking a closer look, "according to him" turned out to be "according to reality" as well. Crazy thing is though, the machine still worked fine! For awhile I could still take notes on a three inch section of the monitor that wasn't cracked! (though that didn't last long)

All that is to say that, insurance companies being what they are, my computer is in the process of being "fixed" (even though a new one would have cost only a few hundred dollars more than the "fixing"). Should have it back late this week.

Now... shower me with pity! (or at least have a good laugh at my expense)

Labels: ,