The enigma of consciousness revisited

Jewish Atheist visits the subject of consciousness from time to time. It goes without saying that his position is quite different from mine. He subscribes to naturalism, and denies the existence of a self.

I don’t suppose that JA’s recent post on this topic (Steven Pinker on consciousness) was a direct response to me. However, it’s worth noting here precisely because it argues a point of view opposite to mine.

The following quotes are from a Steven Pinker article (The mystery of consciousness) as quoted on Jewish Atheist’s blog. Here’s Pinker’s thesis statement:

Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain. Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain.

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The post is in three parts. In my view, the argument of the first section is strong, the middle section less so, and the third section quite weak.

1. On the brain as machine:

Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party.

Response:

The correspondence between electrical activity in a certain part of the brain and the conscious experience of the subject is pretty impressive. The data is still open to interpretation. Jewish Philosopher’s question (Perhaps stimulating a certain area of the brain will simulate seeing a waterfall, does that mean there are no waterfalls?) is a good one.

Still, the data supports the position that there is a 1:1 correspondence between brain function and consciousness — even if I think it falls short of conclusive proof.

2. On the illusion of the self:

The brain rationalizes the outcome [of sensory stimuli and our responses to them] after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along. …

The psychologist Dan Wegner studied the party game in which a subject is seated in front of a mirror while someone behind him extends his arms under the subject’s armpits and moves his arms around, making it look as if the subject is moving his own arms. If the subject hears a tape telling the person behind him how to move (wave, touch the subject’s nose and so on), he feels as if he is actually in command of the arms.

Response:

It’s pretty obvious that our brain (and our consciousness, if we assume that the two are discrete) learns to recognize patterns. We quickly scan a room and recognize that object in the corner as a chair, although we have taken in very little information about it. This is a kind of mental shortcut that makes sense of our environment without demanding thorough attention to every detail at all times.

The examples given are of that sort. I am presented with certain data and I reflexively interpret them a certain way — incorrectly. It isn’t surprising that people do this, because they have practised interpreting data via that shortcut process since earliest childhood. The data are provocative but they don’t prove, to my satisfaction, that consciousness is an illusion.

3. Toward a new morality:

My own [i.e., Pinker’s] view is … the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. … An understanding of the physiology of consciousness … can force us to recognize the interests of other beings — the core of morality. …

Nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. … The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.

Response:

This is a facile argument; nothing more than wishful thinking on Pinker’s part.

The fact is, lots of people enjoy inflicting physical and psychological suffering on others. It isn’t that they think the suffering isn’t real. They just get off on having that kind of absolute power over another human being.

It isn’t a failure to understand that other people are sentient — that’s making cheap excuses for the unconscionable behaviour of evil people.

I won’t insist that belief in a benevolent deity is a better ground for morality than the argument (consciousness = brain function) of Pinker’s essay. But I utterly reject the converse argument, that the essay provides a better ground for morality than belief in a benevolent deity.

People are capable of great good, and great evil. It’s one of the mysteries of human nature, and our capacity for evil is an intractable problem. No one has devised any solution for it to date — and the argument of this essay certainly doesn’t offer one!

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98 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. addofio
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:24:26

    Thought you might be interested in this discussion over on Dr. William Vallicella’s blog–they’re onto the question of consciousness, from a somewhat different starting point than yours here. They’ve started with the question of how, if the mind is entirely immaterial, could it interact with the physical world? And especially. how could it be the cause of any actions in the physical world?

    http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1169922673.shtml

    (Sorry, I don’t know how to do a proper link in a comment yet–I think I figured it out once, but forget how and don’t have time to figure it out.)

    These guys are intellectually heavy-duty; I don’t follow all their points–but it’s very interesting to see the interaction.

    Reply

  2. addofio
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:25:34

    Oh, good, the URL came up as a link. These clever computers (programmers) 🙂

    Reply

  3. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 15:06:23

    It’s interesting to note that this study of biological factors being the key to consciousness is very mainstream in psychology, from what I have seen in university classes thus far. Far more emphasis has been placed on the interaction of neurons than I would have thought likely for a class that I once believed to be the study of the raw consciousness.

    It all ties into the belief in evolution, I suppose. The professor seems to take for granted that belief in a deity is automatically a misconception, and that there is no doubt whatsoever that humans have descended from lesser life forms (if lesser is still politically correct? Never too sure on these terms!)

    But the amount of interest in a lack of self seems to be incredible at this time. And this despite the fact that the professor admits there is a huge lack of straight-up facts concerning these issues. The number of exceptions to the rules put in place by biological psychologists still presents a huge barrier for those said biological psychologists, in my opinion — and they seem altogether too quick to ignore them, although admittedly this is coming from my Trent University bubble. Perhaps there is more openness for conclusions in other institutions that I simply have no access to.

    Reply

  4. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 15:37:43

    I won’t insist that belief in a benevolent deity is a better ground for morality than the argument (consciousness = brain function) of Pinker’s essay. But I utterly reject the converse argument, that the essay provides a better ground for morality than belief in a benevolent deity.

    By “better,” I think Pinker means logically or rationally better – not necessarily always morally better.

    There will always be those who act immorally. The argument is about what constitutes a better logical basis for morality – the dogmatic doctrine of an immortal soul, or the inescapable biological reality that one’s own consciousness corresponds directly to one’s own brain activity, and the conclusion that other brains are conscious, too. Since other brains have a similar consciousness, then they too experience suffering and joy and should have the same rights. It’s a sound basis for the belief that we should share similar moral obligations and moral rights. [The new research may add strength to the argument, but the evidence was already weighty.]

    Moral laws are not binding in the same sense that physical laws, like gravity, are. Moral laws can be disobeyed, whether one believes they are grounded in rationality or in the divine.

    That said, I personally feel that a having a logical/rational basis for morality is more conducive to fairness toward others. Someone whose faith is purely dogmatic is more easily manipulated into doing evil in the name of morality.

    That is not to say that someone can’t believe in both a rational basis and a divine basis. It seems to me that the view that morality is rational is kind of neutral to the question of whether morality is divine. From some point of view, both could be true. In fact, most people seem to use rationality when making moral decisions – they don’t, as a rule, blindly follow their spiritual leaders. But it has been known to happen. But I fear I’ve strayed far from the topic now.

    You may be interested in the comment I left on Jewish Atheist’s blog.

    Reply

  5. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 18:06:18

    The biggest issue I see with the argument about the logistics behind this basis for being moral, Snaars, is that the principles of the research are based on purely scientific logic. To base the concept that their neurological map is similar to ours and thus they deserve the same rights may seem like a sound argument, until you increase the scope of knowledge to the ideologies that lie behind such cold logic.

    By assuming that their body is physiologically similar to ours, there is an innate (in my mind) assumption that somehow there is a lack of humanness behind it. So they have a similar biology to our own. As the saying goes, it is a dog-eat-dog world. From an evolutionary and Hobbesian point of view, this similar set of biological features is simply reason for us to compete with one another. Survival of the fittest is the law which binds creatures that are purely biological. Morality is simply nonexistent in the world of animals, which is what we are reduced to if we look at ourselves as simply a bundle of neurons that are able to be stimulated.

    As far as I can see, this point of view makes it easier to harm others, not harder. There is no cause to be moral; we are all programmed to dominate one another anyways. I would much rather subscribe to the concept of an abstract morality that is benign. That is not to say that an abstract morality is necessarily good for everyone — certainly it is clear that acts of evil have been committed when one figure decides for themselves what is “moral” — however, that being said, a system without morality beyond that of animals seems a far more frightening concept than a system where thinking, mindful humans choose their own set of ideologies.

    Reply

  6. Simen
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 18:09:50

    Absolute morality is not the only kind of morality.

    Reply

  7. Stephen
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 19:12:48

    • Addofio:
    My first post on the enigma of consciousness touched on that issue, how immaterial thoughts can set matter in motion. This is a particular challenge from the perspective of physicists.

    I appreciate the reading material you’re supplying. Time has been at a premium these past few weeks, but I am eager to delve more deeply into this issue. Thanks for pointing me (and other readers) to some substantive resources.

    • Knotworth:
    I’m pleased to see that you’ve entered the fray!

    Trent U. is not unusual in denying the existence of a self. I would say it is now a mainstream idea, at least in intellectual circles. But it is certainly weird for psychology to arrive at that conclusion, given its roots in the exploration of the human psyche!

    In my view, the main problem is this: any knowledge we have relies ultimately on our subjective experiences of the world. It is that same subjective experience that tells me my self exists. How can we deny that subjective datum without suggesting that destroying the foundation upon which all knowledge rests? It would lead to an inability to have any knowledge whatsoever.

    • Michael:
    I found your comment helpful in understanding Pinker’s position. And from the point of view of pure logic, the argument is perhaps attractive.

    The problem is, Pinker seems to honestly believe that this is a potential solution to the problem of human cruelty. And it isn’t! Evil people know they are inflicting real suffering on beings who are sentient, like themselves, and they enjoy it. That’s precisely where the thrill lies for them, so Pinker’s argument doesn’t change the equation.

    Knotworth’s response to you gets at a whole other issue: whether naturalism, rooted in Darwinian evolution, provides an adequate basis for selfless behaviour. I’ve had this debate with you (and others) before, so I have some idea what your response is likely to be — but I’m still inclined to think Knotworth is right.

    • Simen:
    I agree. In fact, I don’t believe Jesus practised an absolute morality. His ethic was grounded in principles, which can be applied flexibly to suit varying circumstances. Christians who think in terms of absolutes don’t interpret Jesus correctly, in my opinion.

    But I suspect you had a specific point, and it isn’t clear to me what that point is.

    Reply

  8. Simen
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 19:34:35

    My point is simply that I don’t subscribe to the line of thought that says absolute authority is the only thing that gives morality meaning.

    Reply

  9. Stephen
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 20:49:11

    Who said anything about absolute authority?

    Reply

  10. addofio
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 21:29:11

    I think when one is duscussing morality, one ignores the realities of human lerning at one’s peril. We learn our basic moral commitments long before we are capable of appreciating, let along participating in, discussions of the rational basis for morality. If a person doesn’t have a good the affective basis, as distinct from or in contrast to intellectual basis, for morality, their behavior is unlikely to be moral.

    I’m offering this in support, and perhaps extension, of Stephen’s point that a person may understand perfectly and even agree with some rational basis for morality (or, for that matter, an authoratative basis, such as “it’s God’s command”), and still behave in an evil way, a way that the person him/herself would agree is evil, just for the pure pleasure of it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you softened that from “evil” to “mean” or “underhanded” or some other “slightly bad” behavior, a lot of us might have to cop to having done exactly that at some point in our lives (as kids, presumably, I hasten to add). And if we’ve gotten over that, so we don’t tease people, or play practical jokes on people who don’t like them, etc., any more, I bet it’s based on feelings, not rational argumentation. Or on bringing the two together, as in “How would you feel if. . .; so it’s wrong to do it.”

    Reply

  11. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 00:43:16

    The biggest issue I see with the argument about the logistics behind this basis for being moral, Snaars, is that the principles of the research are based on purely scientific logic.

    Knotwurth, I don’t want to misunderstand the issue you raise – are you objecting to the science itself, or to the inference that people with minds are morally relevant beings, or is it something else? Because your objection is unclear to me, my response may miss the point, for which I apologize in advance.

    Pinkerton’s argument, in broad strokes, is that we have strong evidence that other people are very similar to ourselves in the structure of their thinking. Such evidence leads us to the belief that other people are more or less our equals in a morally relevant sense, and should therefore be treated as equals. This is far more stable, and less arbitrary than, the notion that other people should be treated as equals because some authority figure said so. Dependant on authority, our knowledge of whether such-and-such person has a soul, and this other person doesn’t, would be a matter of trust in the authority instead of empirical, objective, evidence.

    By assuming that their body is physiologically similar to ours, there is an innate (in my mind) assumption that somehow there is a lack of humanness behind it.

    When all the evidence goes to show that we are alike to other humans, why would we draw the exact opposite conclusion?

    From an evolutionary and Hobbesian point of view, this similar set of biological features is simply reason for us to compete with one another.

    This is an antiquated view of evolution. The world is not a war of all-against-all. Cooperation and interdependance are as important or more so than competition – and the principles of evolution may or may not be applicable to moral rules in any case.

    Morality is simply nonexistent in the world of animals, which is what we are reduced to if we look at ourselves as simply a bundle of neurons that are able to be stimulated.

    Now you are trivializing the argument. No one (especially Pinkerton, if I understand his argument) is saying, “we are nothing more than neurons firing therefore there is no such thing as morality.” Instead, they seem to be saying that all of our own deepest, most profound thoughts and feelings correspond to brain activity, which similar activity we can see in other people – and that means that other people have deep and profound thoughts and feelings, too.

    … this point of view makes it easier to harm others, not harder. There is no cause to be moral; we are all programmed to dominate one another anyways.

    If the evidence shows this I am unaware of it. I don’t see how you come to this conclusion, on the evidence. How are we programmed to dominate each other always?

    I would much rather subscribe to the concept of an abstract morality that is benign. That is not to say that an abstract morality is necessarily good for everyone — certainly it is clear that acts of evil have been committed when one figure decides for themselves what is “moral” — however, that being said, a system without morality beyond that of animals seems a far more frightening concept than a system where thinking, mindful humans choose their own set of ideologies.

    This part of your response is most confusing to me, I think because I don’t know what you mean by the term “abstract morality.” The way I understand those terms, all morality is abstract. But the idea, of which you seem to be a proponent, that humans should choose their own sets of idealogies, is abhorrent to me. (In this context, I read “idealogies” as sets of moral rules.) It seems to me that if everyone created their own moral rules, then we couldn’t possibly rightly hold others morally responsible for their actions, since their rules would be just as good as our own.

    That said, I don’t hold scientists to be morally infallible – far from it. I left a word of caution, below the post that inspired this one, over on Jewish Atheist’s blog.

    Reply

  12. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 00:53:39

    Evil people know they are inflicting real suffering on beings who are sentient, like themselves, and they enjoy it. That’s precisely where the thrill lies for them, so Pinker’s argument doesn’t change the equation.

    Thse sorts of people exist, and they will behave immorally no matter their intellectual understanding of the roots of morality.

    But you are neglecting another sort of evil, which happens when ordinary, good people behave in an immoral way while thinking that they are actually behaving morally. We know that these sorts of evils happen because history is replete with examples. Take slavery as an example.

    I propose that when people have an understanding of the rational basis for morality, they are less likely to listen when authority figures condone immoral behavior, such as slavery.

    Reply

  13. Stephen
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 09:10:50

    • Addofio:
    I certainly have no difficulty in admitting that I’ve done immoral things.

    I think it is important for people to have ideals that they strive to live up to. I also think that we all fall short of our own ideals — never mind the standards other people would hold us to.

    As Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone”. It’s a fundamental observation about human nature, a given: we’re all sinners.

    I have diligently sought a solution to my own moral imperfection, with mixed results! I’ve learned to be satisfied with the fact that I’m making progress. Perfection continues to elude me, but I’ve come a long way from where I was at thirteen, or twenty-six.

    • Michael:
    This is an antiquated view of evolution. The world is not a war of all-against-all.

    No, this isn’t an antiquated view. A turtle lays hundreds of eggs. Only a few ever hatch. Many of the baby turtles never make it to the water before they get gobbled up. Perhaps one or two survive.

    Too many offspring competing for too few resources: competition leading to the survival of only the fittest. This scenario is the core mechanism of evolution, so it can never become antiquated.

    As for recent research, I wonder if you’ve read about the war between the sex chromosomes.? The female sex chromosome constantly attacks the male sex chromosome. At the genetic level, a Hobbesian war of all against all plays itself out, with the potential to destroy the species.

    Morality cannot be found within nature — certainly not within a raw, Darwinian worldview. Morality has to come from beyond nature. I think that’s the crux of the argument.

    You are neglecting another sort of evil, which happens when ordinary, good people behave in an immoral way while thinking that they are actually behaving morally. … Take slavery as an example.

    Slavery is a good example, but let’s broaden it to capture the civil rights movement of the 1960s as well.

    First, I find it hard to believe that anyone could rationally doubt that black people are just as human as white people. I know, people made theological arguments to justify slavery. That’s a point in support of your argument. A theology-based morality can lead to a denial of plain facts of nature.

    But which came first — the theological arguments or the practice of slavery? I think you’ll find that slavery came first, and the theological arguments were a justification tacked on later. People pursued naked self-interest, without regard for the interests of the “other” — in this case, black men and women.

    Slavery didn’t arise from theology: it arose from within, from the evil element within every human heart. There’s good inside each and every one of us, but there’s evil, too.

    In the aftermath of the Civil War, the USA introduced the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. “No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

    So now it has been sorted out. Everyone knows blacks are equal to whites, right? No more theological evasions: it’s right there in the Constitution. Actually, it was implicit in the original Constitution, long before the fourteenth amendment. But in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was still fighting the same, weary battle:

    When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

    I wish people were rational moral actors, but they aren’t. Or, to be less cynical, they are, but only to a limited extent. Naked self-interest still carries the day far too often. Rationalizations, theological or otherwise, will never be eliminated, because they excuse the course of action we have already settled on in our wicked little hearts.

    One of the reasons I persist in Christian faith is because of the promise of redemption. It’s present in the Hebrew scriptures, too:

    And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

    That continues to be my hope: that human beings can be transformed from the inside out, by the intervention of a higher power. Rational arguments won’t effect a decisive change. They are effective, to a limited extent. But a more fundamental change is needed: that’s the only adequate solution to the problem of human evil.

    (Before someone points out the obvious, let me emphasize the word “hope”. It’s obvious to me, as to my readers, that the promise has not yet been fulfilled: that Christian men and women are just as prone to sin as non-Christian men and women. I concede the point: and I continue to hope.)

    Reply

  14. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 10:39:19

    Stephen, you said:

    [Seeing the world as a war of all-against-all] isn’t an antiquated view.

    War of all-against-all is a distorted and incomplete picture. It’s not the case that every creature is in a battle against every other creature. Sometimes species, or even individuals, have mutualistic or commensalistic relationships, where both benefit or one benefits without harm to the other. And all creatures ultimately benefit from a balanced ecosystem in the face of constant change.

    (I heard about the x/y chromosome thing a few years ago and had forgotten about it – interesting stuff!)

    First, I find it hard to believe that anyone could rationally doubt that black people are just as human as white people.

    You are implicitly accepting that morality has a rational basis, the very point I was trying to make. I pretty much agree with most everything from this point in your comment onward.

    which came first — the theological arguments or the practice of slavery?

    I’m not sure it matters which – slavery would never have been carried to the extreme it did, certainly never for as long as it did, had it not been sanctioned by religious leaders.

    Besides slavery, let’s look at the genocides mentioned in the bible, the crusades, the inquisition, mysogyny, homophobia, terrorism, and like examples. Most are justified through religion.

    Reply

  15. Stephen
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 12:43:00

    • Michael:
    It does matter whether the impulse to enslave blacks came first, or was preceded by the theological rationalization.

    Your last couple paragraphs depict religion as the source of human evils. If we could just end religion, you imply, the evil in the world would be eliminated or at least drastically reduced.

    I don’t know where your bitterness against religion comes from, but those two paragraphs are bullshit. In response, let me offer an excerpt from Andrew Sullivan’s book, “The Conservative Soul”.

    As a gay man living in the USA, Sullivan is sensitive to the dangers of fundamentalist religion. He provides an insightful analysis of fundamentalism in the book — and he insists that there is a secular variant of it:

    The secular equivalents — regimes constructed to propagate and disseminate an inerrant doctrine and to find and punish all error — are the dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, and, at the most extreme, Mao and Pol Pot. Sometimes the doctrine is entirely modern — such as the North Korean doctrine of Juche, concocted by the mass murderers, Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. …

    While [such regimes] last, and they can last decades, they are the vehicles for some of the worst brutality, evil, and criminality that the world has ever known. (The Conservative Soul, pp. 119-120)

    I don’t know why atheists persist in offering up this tired straw man, that religion is the source of human evil. Evil resides within the human heart; it isn’t built into an innocent heart by the tyranny of religion.

    Fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam are the result of human evil, not its cause. The proof is in the secular fundamentalisms listed by Sullivan. There are fewer of them, because secularism is a modern development. But give secularism time, and we’ll see plenty more of it.

    Educating people can reduce evil: including the sort of education that teaches people, God is love. But education doesn’t lay the axe to the root problem, the inclination toward evil that is intrinsic to the human heart.

    Therefore Pinker’s tidy little intellectual argument will not reduce human cruelty in the slightest. It’s touchingly naive.

    Reply

  16. addofio
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 13:10:21

    Here are some questions the discussion so far raises in my mind (whatever that is, right? :-))

    Have we, as a species, or have given societies within the human species, progressed in morality over the millenia? For instance, did the Axial Age represent some kind of (slow) Great Leap Forward in human morality or understanding of morality? Or does the near-elimination of slavery (it is still practiced in some places) represent moral progress? Or, given that genocide in the sense of eliminating ethnic groups has occurred many times in the past 10,000 or so years, but today we name it and condemn it–does that represent progress in morality?

    I myself am inclined to say yes, these do represent moral progress. Having been raised in a Christian tradition, I was/am enculturated enough in it to consider the morality of love preached in the gospels to represent moral progress over blind obedience to legal mandates. So I do think we have, can, and do make moral progress, and may even continue to do so. (In our thinking about morality, and in our highest standards of morality, I hasten to add–in our actual average action-on-the-ground, it’s highly debatable. But see Chris Anderson’s response to edge.org’s question “What are you optimistic about?” at edge.org/q2007/q07_1.html)

    But the big question all this raises for me is, on what basis can/should we claim any of these represent progress? Is it on some rational basis? Can science help us here? I’m not so sure. And given that there has been change in the major religious traditions over time with regard to what is considered moral, I’m not so sure they are much help either. It’s all a bit mysterious to me.

    Reply

  17. addofio
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 13:12:26

    Rats. No link this time. Maybe this will do it. I need to figure this link-in-comment stuff out.

    http://edge.org/q2007/q07_1.html

    Reply

  18. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 15:43:39

    Addofio raises a really interesting question: how do we know whether we have, as a species, progressed morally? I too am inclined to say that we have, and I would say that we could evaluate the claim rationally – but I admit that it’s only my opinion. I’ll bet someone has done the work, but I don’t know who or when.

    Stephen: you’re right – half-way, anyway – and I apologize. I shouldn’t have said that religion was the cause of those evils, only that they had a religious component. The real enemy is dogmatism, by which I mean non-critical acceptance of authority. I think that you will find the same kind of dogmatism – not atheism – is the common component in the evil regimes you mentioned.

    Reply

  19. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 16:24:24

    I don’t know why atheists persist in offering up this tired straw man, that religion is the source of human evil. Evil resides within the human heart; it isn’t built into an innocent heart by the tyranny of religion.

    Anyone, religious or atheist or something else, can be evil. Great evils, however, are aided by the cooperation or tacit assent of good people. Historically, religion has been the vehicle by which populations have been cnovinced to tacitly accept or actively participate in great evils. Religion has propagated, and continues to propagate, dangerous us-vs.-them mentalities and intolerance.

    You were correct to point out that religion is not the only vehicle, but it is the most common.

    Reply

  20. whig
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 19:14:05

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), the atheistic state is as capable of great evil as the religious state, what the two have in common is left as an exercise.

    Reply

  21. Simen
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 19:49:12

    There’s no single cause of evil. I don’t think anyone expects to see an utopian dream society even if we got rid of religion. However, for good people to do bad things it requires something special. Faith is a crutch that’s all too often used to rationalize away responsibility for one’s actions. It’s not the only one, and one can have faith outside of religion, but it is extremely common.

    However, I don’t think Pinker’s argument provides a sound basis for morality. He talks about recognizing the human capability to suffer. However, that only pushes the question one level further up – why is it wrong that others suffer, anyway? That’s the very thing he was trying to find out, i.e. what is the nature of right and wrong.

    While the biology of the human brain and its evolution might be able to show us where our instinctive feelings of right and wrong come from, it’s not a good way to investigate the nature of morality. After all, in the animal world, there’s no such thing as morality.

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  22. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 20:29:30

    Michael, my apologies for what confusion my statements may have caused. I guess I had evidence in mind that I didn’t make clear.

    What my primary objection to is the notion that somehow being physiologically similar to the other being would instill a sense of equality and thus morality. For example, for the last half-century, at least, the notion has been present that blacks and whites are both human. There have been black intellectuals, novelist, media figures, and politicians (although admittedly less of the latter in North America) working alongside the whites in similar fields. And yet, despite this, it is clear that slavery as an art has hardly faded. Yes, there is certainly a limited number of states that actually practice slavery in its raw sense, but neocolonialism is still rampant in the modern world, clearly demonstrating the human tendency to act for one’s own benefit, despite rational acknowledgment of their humanity. And neocolonialism, to go along with whig’s point, is clearly not fueled by any religious sense of duty or honour. It is simply an economic state imposing their will in order to benefit.

    My question is why would a scientific knowledge of their body change any of this? Sure, we can know that all of our thoughts are not anything more than neurons working together (which, while it may be slightly trivializing the argument, is still what the concept of biological psychology revolves around — thoughts being simply the result of chemicals in the brain), but in what sense does this put forth a sense of morality? It seems almost universally accepted that blacks and whites are both human, and yet crimes are still present at a large scale that place blacks as second-class world citizens. People are bound to be evil

    That being said, I certainly do not object to there being a basis of rationality behind any moral decision. In my opinion, even faith and religion have to be founded upon some sense of practical application. In our age of the enlightened individual, it would be very difficult to maintain any system of morality without demonstrating some practical roots behind it. Even in Christianity, which historically has been renowned for pulling the wool over the eyes of the masses.

    In regards to the war-against-all being obsolete, as Stephen says, the notion is not antiquated at all. While certainly there are cases of mutually beneficial relationships, this seems to be evidence of the existence of war-against-all rather than against. After all, if the only relationships that form on a regular basis are those that are mutually beneficial, then there is a distinct lack of relationships founded on the welfare of the weaker organism. As long as the relationship is self-benefiting, animals are willing to cooperate, however if it is more beneficial to compete, so be it. the basis for evolution still lies in the fact that animals are competing to survive, as per the commands of the reptilian hind brain.

    Reply

  23. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 20:39:54

    Oops … hit a button and submitted before I had finished editing. I’m new at this, hehehe.

    Anyways, my points stand that there are many examples of knowing, secular decisions leading to evil amongst humans, and also that survival of the fittest is programmed in us as “animals.” The last thing I would address about my previous comment is that when I say I would prefer an abstract set of morality, it by no means suggests that there is no rationality. Rational thoughts have to be the basis for a personal, purely thought-driven sense or morals. I think this is the important point in the essay: notions such as human equality have the be present in our decisions of what is right and what is wrong. Without a sense of practical human rights, there is no chance of justice being achieved.

    However, to attain this belief, I do not think that a physical knowledge of human similarities is any more likely than the more abstract notion that we all are human because we have a sense of mind, something beyond the physical. To move beyond the physical can provide as clear a set of reasoning as the essay proposes, but is not founded in physical laws. I would think that we as humans are capable of overcoming the hard-wired rules that bind us such as survival of the fittest, but to turn to other physical laws in order to do this seems, to me, counterintuitive.

    My point is probably muddled. I’m kind of just throwing out that thought. More importantly, the assumption that physical commonality is liable to be the source of some universal justice seems unlikely.

    Reply

  24. Stephen
    Feb 03, 2007 @ 21:20:35

    • Addofio:
    Thank you for shifting the dialogue in a very interesting direction: in Michael’s paraphrase, How do we know whether we have, as a species, progressed morally?

    I certainly believe that the Axial Age constituted a revolutionary period of moral development for the human race. And I like to think that Jesus belongs in that group. Although he’s a little outside the dates, I believe he stands in continuity with the great Hebrew prophets. (I don’t regard Jesus as God incarnate — certainly not in Nicene terms.)

    Personally, I use the message of the synoptic Gospels as my measuring stick. But (a) I can’t prove, objectively, that that’s the right standard to use; and (b) I accept that the Gospels are unhistorical in some of their claims, so I rely on a reconstruction of the “historical” Jesus, which takes us into hotly contested territory.

    I certainly don’t think science has any special authority to speak to moral issues. This is one of the main reasons I think there must be other ways of “knowing” — not just religion, but also philosophy, and the intuitive leaps human beings are sometimes capable of making.

    The “revelation” on which religions are typically founded may be a special category of intuition, or it may be something more than that: i.e., an extraordinary receptivity to the divine. In any event, I take St. Paul’s assertion seriously: “We know in part and we prophesy in part” (1Co. 13:9). That is, I regard all revelation as partial and imperfect.

    Ultimately, as my current post explains, I think the only way to make progress is via dialogue — Ricoeur’s “community of interpreters” — with its resultant winnowing and pooling of our various insights.

    • Michael:
    Historically, religion has been the vehicle by which populations have been convinced to tacitly accept or actively participate in great evils. Religion has propagated, and continues to propagate, dangerous us-vs.-them mentalities and intolerance.

    Thanks for taking a step back from your earlier assertions.

    It’s important to think carefully about the issue you raise. It’s a mistake to point to the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, etc., and assume that the conclusion necessarily follows.

    I think religion is properly regarded as a kind of intensifier or magnifier of innate human inclinations. One has to remember that this works both ways: it intensifies the evil people do, but it also intensifies the good that people do.

    In part, this is because it mobilizes groups of people to act in unanimity. In part, it’s because religion has the power to inflame people’s emotions and strengthen their resolve to do a certain thing. In any event, towering figures of evil (e.g. Osama bin Laden) are offset by towering figures of good (e.g. Gandhi). And one must not forget the millions of people who quietly do good (or bad) in the name of God/religion, without ever accomplishing anything significant enough to make it into the history books.

    Contrary to your assertion, religion doesn’t always lead to an “us vs. them” mindset. Sometimes it motivates people to identify with non-Christian others, like Mother Teresa, who ministered to the poorest of the poor in a non-Christian nation.

    In sum, your conclusions don’t take the totality of the evidence into account. I also reiterate my point, that secularism is a recent development, so historical comparisons are unavoidably skewed.

    • Simen:
    Faith is a crutch that’s all too often used to rationalize away responsibility for one’s actions. It’s not the only one, and one can have faith outside of religion, but it is extremely common.

    I appreciate the distinction you make here between faith and religion. Personally, I don’t relish the role of “Defender of Religion”. I am a theist, but my relations with the Church over the years have been quite prickly!

    That’s a big part of the reason why this blog is called, “Outside the Box”. I tend to be offside with both atheists and theists.

    Perhaps that speaks to the perversity of my nature. On the other hand, Jesus didn’t go over well with religious folk; neither did Jeremiah or various other men of God. So I’m in good company when I admit that I’m no champion of “religion”.

    As for the rest of your comment, it’s probably the first time we’ve ever been in agreement with one another! Some questions are outside the capacity of science to answer. Maybe the answers will ultimately emerge in the blogosphere, if we keep challenging one another’s unsubstantiated assumptions.
    😉

    Reply

  25. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 04, 2007 @ 14:03:02

    Stephen, I enjoy discussions about morality. You haven’t objected to my long-winded comments in the past, so I hope you don’t mind another! 🙂

    I think religion is properly regarded as a kind of intensifier or magnifier of innate human inclinations.

    This seems to me to be true in a sense, although I haven’t thought about it before. It might be especially true in the multicultural, multireligious society we are in, since people can choose a religion that more or less fits their natural inclinations. Still, I think that faith groups should scrutinize leadership decisions and hold leaders and each other accountable. The entire group shares responsibility for the group’s actions, good or evil.

    I certainly believe that the Axial Age constituted a revolutionary period of moral development for the human race.

    Thanks for the link. This idea is not altogether new to me, but I had not seen the information put together in this way before.

    I would like to clarify some of my previous comments which seem to have been misread.

    Contrary to your assertion, religion doesn’t always lead to an “us vs. them” mindset.

    Hold on a second – I never said that religion always leads to an us vs. them mindset. What I said was “Religion has propagated, and continues to propagate, dangerous us-vs.-them mentalities and intolerance.” The comment was not intended to apply to all faiths everywhere.

    Whig said: Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), the atheistic state is as capable of great evil as the religious state, what the two have in common is left as an exercise.

    And Stephen said: … secularism is a recent development, so historical comparisons are unavoidably skewed.

    Thank you both. I agree. Nevertheless I think we need to try to understand the great evils I mentioned, so we can do our best to avoid them in the future.

    In a point more central to the topic, I readily affirm that there is something about moral behavior that does not seem easily or obviously reducible to science, or even (more broadly) rationality. My claim, which seems to have been misunderstood, was that morality has a rational basis – but I wouldn’t argue that rationality is definitely the only basis for morality. That is why I said, in an earlier comment: “That is not to say that someone can’t believe in both a rational basis and a divine basis.”

    I’m not sure of the finer points of Pinkerton’s argument, so maybe I haven’t represented it well. But personally, I think that insofar as we correctly understand what makes us moral agents – or morally relevant beings, or persons, or whatever – the harder it will be for us to justify wrongful discrimination against others. And research into consciousness can only further that understanding. It’s not an instant recipe for making someone moral, but I believe it can help otherwise moral people behave better.

    KnotWurth Mentioning said: In regards to the war-against-all being obsolete, as Stephen says, the notion is not antiquated at all. While certainly there are cases of mutually beneficial relationships, this seems to be evidence of the existence of war-against-all rather than against. After all, if the only relationships that form on a regular basis are those that are mutually beneficial, then there is a distinct lack of relationships founded on the welfare of the weaker organism.

    Thanks, KnotWurth for your further comments – I think I have a better idea of where you are coming from. I tend to read a bit literally. All-against-all is a fairly absolute phrase, allowing for no exceptions. I did not mean to minimize the importance of competition’s role in evolution. I only meant to emphasize that competition is not the only active principle involved.

    Humans are undoubtedly the most morally developed species we know of, but there are examples of rudimentary morality in other social species (in chimpanzees at least, and I think wolves, whales, dolphins, and others) and the evidence seems to be mounting that morality has roots in evolution. Nature may actually be rife with examples of cooperation and even altruism.

    Stephen said: That continues to be my hope: that human beings can be transformed from the inside out, by the intervention of a higher power.

    This is a truly noble sentiment. I share your hope even if I don’t think we’ll get help from a higher power.

    Reply

  26. Jamie
    Feb 04, 2007 @ 15:07:21

    On the idea that understanding the physiology of consciousness is a more stable basis for morality, I would have thought just the opposite. If Pinker is right, then other people’s “selves” are just an illusion (i.e., they aren’t “real”). In that case, what’s to stop me from harming these illusory entities?

    The brain rationalizes the outcome [of sensory stimuli and our responses to them] after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along. …

    This doesn’t explain why I recognize that I am conscious. I mean, maybe the self is an illusion, as Pinker suggests. But an illusion is a deception—and who is it that is being deceived, if not me? That argument seems a little pointless.

    That said, I am a theist, and I’m having a hard time seeing a problem with the notion that every aspect of consciousness can be tied directly to the brain. I suppose you can say that since there is a 1-to-1 correlation between my conscious thought and what happens in my brain, my self is, in a sense, an illusion. But on the other hand, I am aware of myself, so what point is there in saying that I am an illusion? The 1-to-1 correlation notwithstanding, it still seems simplest to acknowledge that I am real.

    First, I find it hard to believe that anyone could rationally doubt that black people are just as human as white people. I know, people made theological arguments to justify slavery.

    This is a bit off topic, but I don’t think the connection between theology and the belief in the biological inferiority of blacks is quite as solid as you imply. Given that this accusation is slung around regularly as an attack on Christianity, I think it is important to get the facts straight.

    Recall that many of the racial arguments for slavery came from evolutionary science, not theology. Though it is true that ethnological arguments for black subjugation (including appeals to the Noahic curse) were prevalent in the Old South, Peter Kolchin, writing in the American Historical Review, says the following: “Antebellum Southerners recognized that many of their best arguments in favor of slavery were nonracial, and the less timid among them fully acknowledge this fact.”

    Southern historian Eugene Genovese, in his book A Consuming Fire says that scientific racist arguments for subjugation of blacks were in fact undermined by the religious justification of slavery. Scientific racists claimed that blacks were biologically inferior, but “the Southern divines despised the scientific racists,” since they felt that such arguments contradicted the Bible.

    Nearly all southern theorists accepted that historical and cultural racial differences presently prevented social and political equality among blacks and whites, but many rejected any inherent biological inferiority. According to the Bible, all men were descended from the same parents. Accordingly, Genovese quotes one proslavery writer as saying that the “plainest declarations of the Word of God” declared that the Black man shares “the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God. We are not ashamed to call him our brother.”

    Reply

  27. whig
    Feb 04, 2007 @ 18:35:09

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), morality can have a metarational basis, but not a rational basis that does not take into consideration the equal rationality of others.

    This is hard for you to conceptualize when you are simultaneously condemning the rationality of others.

    Reply

  28. whig
    Feb 04, 2007 @ 18:37:26

    Let me frame this a different way, is it conceivable to you that I and many others could have a rational basis for our belief in God?

    Reply

  29. whig
    Feb 04, 2007 @ 18:48:27

    Another point, while you may not now believe in the idea of higher power, do you believe in the idea of higher perception or consciousness?

    Reply

  30. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 07:47:04

    • Michael:
    No need to apologize; I didn’t find your comment long-winded. Probably because my comments are frequently longer!

    It might be especially true in the multicultural, multireligious society we are in, since people can choose a religion that more or less fits their natural inclinations.

    Also, never underestimate people’s capacity to hear only what they want to hear, regardless of what the founder of the religion actually said. Jesus was manifestly a pacifist, but it hasn’t stopped Christians from using their faith as a rationalization for war.

    Insofar as we correctly understand what makes us moral agents – or morally relevant beings, or persons, or whatever – the harder it will be for us to justify wrongful discrimination against others.

    Thanks for clarifying your views; I apologize for being slow to understand.

    I don’t fundamentally disagree with your position, since I likewise believe morality must be rational. In fact, I think the main disagreement between us is that I’m more cynical about human nature than you are.

    I don’t believe evil people act out of ignorance. Therefore, although morality must be rational, reason is not a very strong restraint on (some people’s) behaviour. But I think you concede that point here:
    “It’s not an instant recipe for making someone moral, but I believe it can help otherwise moral people behave better.”

    Nature may actually be rife with examples of cooperation and even altruism.

    This may be true (I’m not sure what examples you have in mind), which gives rise to another difficult question. What is “nature”?

    Are animals that learn to collaborate acting in accordance with “nature”? (= instinct?) Or are they rising above nature (= reflexive Darwinian competitiveness) as they develop greater rationality and social awareness?

    I’m not disputing your position here, just musing.

    Reply

  31. addofio
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 11:28:45

    With regard to:

    “Nature may actually be rife with examples of cooperation and even altruism.”

    If you think about it, nature is definitely “rife with examples of cooperation”. Every multicellular evolved from multicellular colonies of single-cell organisms that banded together cooperatively for mutual benefit. Altruism is less frequently seen–and some people argue it away altogether–but it exists fairly regularly in social species. Then there’s a variety of inter-species behavior that mutually benefits both species, such as the tick-eating birds that perch on large animals in Africa–the bird gets fed, the large animal gets rid of irritating and health=threatening pests.

    One can argue that all these behaviors exist because they help each species compete, but that doesn’t change the reality of the cooperation. The point is that arguably competition leads to cooperation as a widespread, successful phenomenon in nature.

    Reply

  32. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 12:18:02

    Whig wrote: Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), morality can have a metarational basis, but not a rational basis that does not take into consideration the equal rationality of others. This is hard for you to conceptualize when you are simultaneously condemning the rationality of others.

    The only way I can read this, is that you feel I have condemned the rationality of others in some way. To whatever extent that this is my fault, I apologize, but I can’t help feeling that the spirit in which my comments were offered has been misconstrued as something else. This is one of the pitfalls of blogging – most of the non-verbal communication that we enjoy during face-to-face communication is lost. When I offer an opposing viewpoint or ask for clarification, I do so with repect, not condemnation. When I consider someone to be irrational, or not rational enough to talk to, I simply don’t.

    You offer an interesting thesis – that morality cannot have a rational basis unless we consider the equal rationality of others. Do you mean that it would be immoral to consider another to be less rational than one’s self? How would this be applied to someone who is acting in a fit of anger, or someone who is mentally ill, or animals? Or, do you mean that I should try to evaluate my own level of rationality and that of others, for the puposes of evaluating who is equally rational to myself? Or, do you mean something else?

    My own view is that there is a distinction to be made between someone’s being personally justified in believing something, and that thing’s being rational. By and large, humans behave more or less rationally in their daily lives and decisions. But there are glaring exceptions. The human brain seems to take short-cuts, and so thinking rationally can be difficult. Even when we make every effort to be rational, we can make mistakes because it’s often difficult.

    We all think irrationally at times – it’s part of being human. I believe that thinking rationally can lead to all kinds of truths, so I like to make the attempt.

    reason is not a very strong restraint on (some people’s) behaviour. But I think you concede that point here:
    “It’s not an instant recipe for making someone moral, but I believe it can help otherwise moral people behave better.”

    The conversation may have gotten sidetracked, but I think essentially we were always in agreement on this point.

    To be moral one has to reach a value judgment – probably a generalization, like: I don’t like my own suffering, so all suffering, whether it is felt by me or not, is wrong. (It’s not clear – at least not to me – that that judgement is entirely rational in all its steps.) Our ability to generalize in this fashion may be due to hard-wiring. Our hard-wiring may be the result of evolution. This ability to generalize might be what makes it possible for us to be social creatures, and to reap the survival benefits thereof.

    If true, this might be a better (rational) ground for morality than the belief in a benevolent deity. It may not help people to make moral decisions, but it might be a better (more rational) explanation for where morality comes from.

    I don’t know whether I made a good case for Pinker, or if I should even have tried considering I am only sketchily acquainted with his views on the matter. I’ll leave that to the readers to decide.

    Reply

  33. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 12:41:35

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), I appreciate that you do not condemn reasoning and rationality that you do not necessarily understand, but you still seem to place yourself on a pedestal as being more rational than those who are religious, and speak of “better” rationality for morality than belief in a benevolent deity, for instance, which demonstrates my point to some extent.

    You don’t believe I could be as rational as you if I believe in God.

    Now the problem with this, at the outset, is that rationality says nothing about what we believe. It is neither rational nor irrational to believe in rainbows, of course, unless you have seen one. If you have seen a rainbow it would be irrational to discount this on the argument of others that rainbows do not exist.

    Metarationality does not mean you or I are always perfectly rational, whatever that means. To live an emotionless Vulcan existence, as one would have to in order to conform to a certain definition of rationality, strikes me as highly irrational in fact. In any case, I don’t have to prove this point, because presumably you have emotions just as I do, and other kinds of reasoning that we cannot quantify in mathematical-style reasoning. I am asking you, not to place me on a pedestal as one who is more rational, but as a metarational equal, one who is believed by you to be as rational as anyone.

    When we are equals, we treat one another as equals. Injustice flows from inequality.

    Reply

  34. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 12:56:46

    Whig said: is it conceivable to you that I and many others could have a rational basis for our belief in God?

    Part of my last comment was in answer to this one, but I forgot to paste in the quote. People have strong personal justification for their beliefs. Generally, I do not condemn them for that (in a very few cases, I think perhaps they ought to have known better than to accept extraordinary claims). Overall, I have compassion for other human beings whether they share my views or not.

    I believe that when the claim is rigorously examined, in an objective fashion, as all extraordinary claims should be, there isn’t any rational basis for the belief in a benevolent deity. I believe that, overall, humanity would be better off if we did not believe. I could be mistaken on both counts.

    do you believe in the idea of higher perception or consciousness?

    I believe in altered states of consciousness, although I have never experimented. I don’t believe that altered states are particularly truth-inducive, although there is evidence that an occasional change in perspective can be beneficial.

    Reply

  35. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 12:59:45

    Rationality does not mean one is never confused, and here is an important point which shows the weakness of formal rationality (that which does not merely have a rationale, ore reason, but that which follows axiomatic rules). Goedel proved that axiomatic systems are always incomplete and/or inconsistent anyhow.

    Anyhow, I think you are confused about what rationality means if you think there is anything irrational about believing in God when one has personal knowledge that anyone can have.

    Reply

  36. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:00:46

    Are your eyes are tightly shut to the truth, or will you try some cannabis?

    Reply

  37. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:05:29

    • Jamie:
    If Pinker is right, then other people’s “selves” are just an illusion (i.e., they aren’t “real”). In that case, what’s to stop me from harming these illusory entities?

    That seems like a strong argument to me.

    I’m having a hard time seeing a problem with the notion that every aspect of consciousness can be tied directly to the brain.

    We ended up debating morality. But the issue is tied into a larger debate, over whether there’s anything more to a human being than his or her physical body.

    There’s no need to explain consciousness if it arises through evolution, as a natural by-product of complex brain function. There’s no basis for considering consciousness to be part of the human “spirit”; no reason to suppose that human beings have any special capacity (i.e., a capacity beyond that of animals) to enter into personal relationship with a God of pure spirit.

    But this takes the issue far beyond anything that has been debated in the comments.

    I don’t think the connection between theology and the belief in the biological inferiority of blacks is quite as solid as you imply.

    I don’t know the history well enough to say. But I do know the New Testament, and the criticisms that are levelled against it. People are looking for a clear prohibition of slavery, and it isn’t there. On the contrary, the New Testament seems to accept slavery as a legitimate social institution, albeit one that needs to be regulated.

    I think that’s a superficial reading of the New Testament and first century Roman history. I believe the New Testament actually undermines the institution, but in a far-from-revolutionary manner.

    When some Christians (notably Wilberforce) set out to abolish slavery, Christians on opposite sides of the issue began to argue over the correct interpretation of the New Testament. But you seem to know more about the history than I do, which isn’t surprising: slavery was never such an issue in Canada as it was in the USA.

    Reply

  38. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:15:02

    Whig said: I appreciate that you do not condemn reasoning and rationality that you do not necessarily understand, but you still seem to place yourself on a pedestal as being more rational than those who are religious, and speak of “better” rationality for morality than belief in a benevolent deity, for instance, which demonstrates my point to some extent.

    I’m sorry you feel that I put myself on a pedestal.

    You don’t believe I could be as rational as you if I believe in God.

    No, that’s not true. I just happen to have studied in this area and feel that I have something that could be of interest to contribute.

    Now the problem with this, at the outset, is that rationality says nothing about what we believe. It is neither rational nor irrational to believe in rainbows, of course, unless you have seen one.

    It’s true that we do not have direct control over what we believe. I can’t choose to believe that I am not typing at this moment. There is plenty of evidence for the existence of rainbows, so I’m not going to be drawn into that debate.

    To live an emotionless Vulcan existence, as one would have to in order to conform to a certain definition of rationality, strikes me as highly irrational in fact.

    I will not grace this blatant ad hominem attack with an answer. I think you are the person with a chip on his shoulder, not me.

    When we are equals, we treat one another as equals. Injustice flows from inequality.

    You are my equal as a human being. But not every idea is equal. I am not trying to rob you of a precioius belief. I am only sharing a positive case for my own. You are not obligated to accept it. If you are willing to share your own beliefs, I am entitled to evaluate them, just as you are entitled to evaluate mine.

    Reply

  39. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:15:32

    As you can see, my writing is affected. I might make a typographical error and not realize I made it. But my reasoning is unimpaired.

    I am giving you cannabis in my words and between them and through them.

    Does that strike you as irrational? It is not, and I will commence to explain how it is happening.

    I took cannabis, and also a few sips of tea which I am consuming as I am writing to you. I am now writing from the consciousness that my mind has, and the words I generate are an expression of my higher consciousness. When you read my words, they become part of your consciousness.

    Music is the language most of us use. I am slow to learn how, because I express myself in very precise ways sometimes, or at least desire to do so, and the common systems are not given to the level of information density I like. So I use words for now.

    Reply

  40. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:21:19

    • Addofio:
    Arguably competition leads to cooperation as a widespread, successful phenomenon in nature.

    Thanks for providing some concrete examples.

    I think it matters whether the cooperation is ultimately a matter of self-interest. Morality only gets tested when the “right” thing to do runs contrary to my self-interest. If animals cooperate only insofar as it is in their best interests to do so, they haven’t arrived at morality yet.

    • Michael:
    To be moral one has to reach a value judgment – probably a generalization, like: I don’t like my own suffering, so all suffering, whether it is felt by me or not, is wrong.

    I appreciate that observation. This is where your philosophical training is more directly relevant than my theological training. (Perhaps because my theological interest lies primarily with the question of the “historical” Jesus, rather than applied ethics per se.)

    I think morality begins with the observation that others do not exist to serve my self-interest. This means I have to recognize I am not superior to others.

    One of the better ethical principles of Judaism and Christianity has been articulated as the “dignity” of our fellow human beings. All human beings are created in the image of God, according to Genesis. The fall has defaced that image, to a debatable extent. Nonetheless, the image of God is present within every human being, including those with mental or physical disabilities, those in prison, men and women and blacks and whites alike — etc.

    Not that Christians have always lived in accordance with that theology. But, for me, that’s where morality begins. “Insofar as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me” (Mt. 25) — because the least among human beings still bears God’s image.

    Human flesh was further dignified by the incarnation — or so orthodox Christian theology affirms. Consequently, I must treat my fellow human beings with respect — with the dignity that is their birthright — and not put my own interests above theirs.

    The approach may be rational or irrational. But it certainly offers a strong starting point for morality.

    I don’t know whether I made a good case for Pinker … I’ll leave that to the readers to decide.

    I appreciate you making the attempt. It wouldn’t have been much of a dialogue if you hadn’t taken Pinker’s side!

    Reply

  41. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:30:04

    Stephen, you write beautifully, and there is nothing but sparkling reason in your words. The difficulty comes when those who do not understand your words, or willfully misconstrue them for their purposes after you have been taken away. That is part of the lesson of the historical church.

    Reply

  42. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:32:23

    The whole controversy was over cannabis then, as it is now. Cannabis was at the foundation of Judaism. Christ Jesus brought it out of the temple. The Romans killed him, and replaced his teachings with their own. Cannabis was called devil’s weed.

    Reply

  43. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:42:22

    Whig, I want ask you this question – you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. Are you a Rastafarian? It’s just a hunch, I hope you are not offended by the suggestion. I have never conversed with a Rastafarian before, so I was just wondering.

    Reply

  44. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:43:25

    If you combine cannabis with a found yeast (sourdough), you can create a higher consciousness in bread. That is one of the mysteries that was concealed. I tell you these things as recipes, which you may choose to follow or not, but they are demonstrable.

    Reply

  45. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 13:44:34

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), I am not a Rastafarian by any declaration or understanding. I am a Christian. I respect all faiths, however.

    Reply

  46. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:04:01

    I am not a Rastafarian by any declaration or understanding. I am a Christian. I respect all faiths, however.

    Thanks, Whig. I know that Rastafarianism has some Christian roots and that cannabis and ganja tea are sacred to them, so it was my best guess.

    I respect people of all faiths, but I don’t think all faiths are correct. I hope you can appreciate the difference without taking offense.

    That said, I would be interested in learning about your faith, but I think we’ve strayed far afield of the topic. Perhaps another time.

    Reply

  47. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:07:34

    I actually was having ordinary tea, Thea sinensis. Currently I have some sort of cinnamon-flavored herbal blend at my side. I do drink cannabis tea as well, with the leftover herbs from vaporization I do not create ashes, but oxidised flowers which are perfect for making a very nice cuppa.

    Stephen, do you mind the tangent?

    Reply

  48. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:11:07

    I should point out that cinnamon in the United States is usually cassia, and probably is in the case of my tea. It’s a difference that might be important to someone.

    Reply

  49. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:11:56

    • Whig:
    Thank you for the kind words!

    • Michael:
    Whig has indicated elsewhere that she is a panentheist — hence the reference to the consciousness of bread.

    You two seem to come from opposite poles in your respective worldviews, but I’m glad you’re in dialogue with one another.

    Reply

  50. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:13:47

    Stephen, I’m not a she. Just to be clear on that. 🙂

    Reply

  51. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:15:09

    I would accept s/he, if you like. I kind of like that idea, but it seems uncommonly used.

    Reply

  52. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:18:55

    Also, chalking up my statement to the fact that I am a panentheist partially reverses cause and effect. I am a panentheist because I know that consciousness is present in everything that lives, and I have demonstrated it. According to the scientific method, I have written of my findings and invited others to confirm.

    Reply

  53. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:27:49

    It is approximately as subject to refutation as gravity, so go ahead.

    Reply

  54. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:31:57

    Stephen wrote: One of the better ethical principles of Judaism and Christianity has been articulated as the “dignity” of our fellow human beings….

    There is a lot of wisdom in the bible. I don’t disagree with many “biblical” principles, but I have come to think about them in a different way than most people of faith. To me, the bible is less a source of truth than a work of art that reflects our human nature back at us. I suppose I revere it in that sense.

    Reply

  55. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:47:53

    … I know that consciousness is present in everything that lives, and I have demonstrated it. According to the scientific method, I have written of my findings and invited others to confirm.

    Interesting. You certainly seem to be convinced of the quality of your evidence and the veracity of your conclusions. Where might I find a copy?

    At the risk of offending you once again, I feel obliged to point out that most scientists are a bit more … circumspect? It seems to me that the scientific community would be, if anything, more sceptical even thanI am.

    Reply

  56. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:49:27

    Thanks for clarifying, Whig. I don’t know how I formed the impression that you are female; I guess we inevitably assign a sex to anyone with whom we interact in the blogosphere.

    Reply

  57. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 14:54:17

    Oops, I overlooked your question. I don’t object to tangents. As long as the dialogue is respectful, it’s up to the participants to decide whether it’s worth pursuing.

    Reply

  58. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 15:10:18

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), your skepticism is noted but irrelevant, nor does it matter how skeptical anyone else might be. The question is simply whether you will perform the experiment or you will not, when it is easily done if you choose to.

    You can start here.

    Reply

  59. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 15:45:38

    Whig, your blog looks like fun, but how do you justify characterizing it as a scientific demonstration of panentheism?

    I assume the ‘experiment’ involves taking cannabis in order to alter my state of mind.

    your skepticism is noted but irrelevant, nor does it matter how skeptical anyone else might be.

    Does this mean that, no matter what level of scepticism I have, I will be convinced of the truth of panantheism once I perform the experiment?

    I have no intention of doing so, I’m just wondering if I understand you correctly.

    Reply

  60. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 16:27:25

    You do not understand very much if you refuse to look at the evidence, and I have told you, given you a recipe, and asked whether you will perform the experiment. You now state you have no intention of performing the experiment, therefore we are at an end. I cannot convince you of a rainbow if you won’t look out the window.

    Reply

  61. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 16:59:49

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars), will you do me the honor of an explanation, a reason, a rationale, a demonstration of your own logic, why you will not consider taking cannabis, and do you think it is possible you are confused about something?

    Reply

  62. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 17:08:17

    Whig: You do not understand very much if you refuse to look at the evidence

    I understand enough.

    You ask me to deliberately confuse my perceptions and then accept that whatever I perceive is veridical. But I can be mistaken in my everyday perceptions, such as when I am in a highly emotional state, or when I am looking at an optical illusion, or watching a magic show, or something like that. My perceptions are much more likely to be deceived while I am under the influence of a mind-altering substance, and being in an altered state of mind is likely to interfere with, not enhance, my ability to reason, Any conclusions I would reach while under the influence would be highly suspect.

    Why would you think that your pharmalogically induced perception is more veridical than your every-day perception?

    Plenty of people use cannabis and have no experience of the divine. What I experience will be influenced by my beliefs and preconceptions.

    Plenty of people use all sorts of other drugs, and they claim to have all sorts of special knowledge as a result. What if I take some drug and have an experience that I myself am the one and only true god, and the universe is my plaything? Panentheism and solipsistic deism are contradictory beliefs, aren’t they? How would I know which is true? One way would be to use reason to figure out that both perceptions were false.

    I could take a drug that would make me feel invincible, and I could go for a jog on broken legs. I would learn, quite painfully, that my perception was wrong, once the drug’s effect wore off.

    I don’t have any reason to believe that your recipe leads to truth, and I have every reason to think that it does not lead to truth.

    And you never answered the question of how you justify calling this science.

    Reply

  63. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 17:36:10

    Any conclusions I would reach while under the influence would be highly suspect.

    I’m not necessarily taking Whig’s side in the discussion, because my own method of striving after truth is quite different. But I would like to respond to the statement just quoted.

    It seems to me to be a methodological assumption. But how do we know the methodology (exclude mind-altering substances) is the best option available to us?

    Why is one’s consciousness apart from cannabis necessarily a more reliable guide, when it comes to God, than one’s consciousness on cannabis — or some other consciousness-altering alternative?

    The reason I ask is because religious folks have relied on altered consciousness as a means of getting in touch with the divine down through the ages. (Induced by all sorts of means: e.g. the dancing of the whirling dervishes.) I don’t use any such means myself. But if God occupies a kind of parallel universe that intersects with ours, maybe altered consciousness is a legitimate path to connection with God.

    (Excuse the hokey Star Trek analogy — I’m grasping at something with the best language available to me.)

    A recent study seems to suggest that “magic mushrooms” leads some people into an experience of God. (I read about it in Andrew Sullivan’s blog, but his blog is offline at the moment, so I can’t provide a reference.) How do we know, scientifically, that such experiences are invalid?

    Reply

  64. Stephen
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 17:50:10

    Andrew Sullivan’s blog is back up: Religious freedom and psilocybin, with a link to the Washington Post.

    Reply

  65. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 17:56:57

    Stephen, you are correct. We cannot trust our perceptions absolutely no matter what we consume. We have dreams, after all. Knowing what is true requires continual testing, and verifying against that which is confirmable by the experience of others.

    Michael (a.k.a. Snaars) seems to have bought into the lies about cannabis, that it is somehow a chemical adulterant of human consciousness, when it is a perfectly natural and useful herb that has been used without fatality thoughout recorded human history. Few things have such a safety record as cannabis.

    Reply

  66. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 17:59:53

    What drugs do you take Michael aka Snaars? What foods do you eat, and beverages do you drink? Do you think that they do not alter your consciousness?

    Reply

  67. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 18:04:51

    I could take a drug that would make me feel invincible, and I could go for a jog on broken legs. I would learn, quite painfully, that my perception was wrong, once the drug’s effect wore off.

    I had a crushed hip, which I was advised by physicians to tolerate as long as I could, lest a replacement be temporary. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to continue to walk as long as possible?

    And so I did.

    You are afraid of solipsism, I see. And it is what you hold inside yourself, when you do not recognize the divinity within the other. Namaste.

    Reply

  68. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 18:10:58

    Stephen, by the way, psilocybin is the world’s greatest chronic painkiller. A true psychedelic dose is necessary to obtain the benefit, but it is profound and lasts at least a week in my experience.

    Reply

  69. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 18:15:09

    The actual mechanics seem to be that it stimulates receptors in a part of the brain until they retreat, and then it takes them awhile to recover back to normal. There’s no toxicity demonstrated, but it is harder to function on mushrooms than cannabis, for sure. Unless you’ve got some serious pain that cannabis can’t reach, I recommend the more sociable choice.

    Reply

  70. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 18:32:51

    Really, the worst painkillers are those that with increasing dosage can cause the patient to die. Those would be the perfectly legal by prescription opiates.

    Reply

  71. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 18:33:47

    And of course the totally over the counter alcohol.

    Reply

  72. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 18:40:28

    I’m curious if Michael aka Snaars detects any impairment of my own faculties since I am admittedly and presently affected by cannabis. I say the effect is positive, and does not impair my reason in the slightest. What error do you find in my words?

    Reply

  73. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 21:48:27

    Whig, I want you to know that I find you an affable sort of person. I like you, and I mean you no harm or disrespect. I simply have an opposing viewpoint.

    Stephen wrote: Why is one’s consciousness apart from cannabis necessarily a more reliable guide, when it comes to God, than one’s consciousness on cannabis — or some other consciousness-altering alternative?

    First off, I want to go on record as saying that I realize mystical religious experiences (when I studied them, we called them MRE’s) can be highly valued by those that have them. They can be life-transforming. They have been reported throughout history and in all cultures. I don’t think that people who have had them are very much different from anyone else – by which I mean they’re not necessarily irrational or mentally ill. They’re honest, ordinary people.

    Whig said, “We cannot trust our perceptions absolutely no matter what we consume. We have dreams, after all.

    Whig, I take the preceding statement as an admission that at least one altered state – sleep – is less reliable than your waking state. Why do you find the sleep state to be less reliable? I think it’s probably for reasons similar to the ones I will offer up against other altered states of consciousness. I alluded to some reasons in my last comment, but I will be more explicit here.

    1) MRE’s (mystical religious experiences) can be spontaneous, or they can be reproduced through various means: drugs, isolation tanks, meditation, etc. (whirling dervishes and magic mushrooms included). Studies show that they will be interpreted according to the presuppositions of the person having them. Whether or not the person believes them to be experiences of the divine depends on what they already believed beforehand.

    2) Some experiences are delusional, period. We should test extraordinary experiences to see if they are real or veridical. Why should we hold your claims, Whig, to a lower standard than we would hold any other claim? We know we can be mistaken, so we should have some supporting evidence that is independent of the actual experience. Simply having an experience is not enough to justify a belief – we should have some reason to believe the experience is accurate.

    3) Drug-induced mental states have generally been shown to be unreliable in terms of the experiences people have. People have been known to experience all sorts of things that have been contrary to the evidence. Maybe I could give you a drug that made you believe you were drowning, or made it seem to you that you were covered in insects. These experiences would be contravened by any observers, and also by the state of affairs you would find yourself in after the drug wore off (alive and dry, no inset bites, etc.). If you knew you were drugged and retained your rationality throughout the experience, you might even disbelieve it as it was happening to you.

    Stephen wrote: … if God occupies a kind of parallel universe that intersects with ours, maybe altered consciousness is a legitimate path to connection with God.

    There are differences between ordinary sensory experience and direct experience of the divine. Our ordinary sensory experiences come to us through a known physiology. For experiences of the divine, there is no known physiology. This makes the experience impossible to verify. How is it that we could connect mentally with a parallel universe (to continue your analogy)? How can a parallel universe intersect with our own?

    There are a lot of different altered states/drugs that will produce very different experiences of the divine. Do all of these states lead to a different parallel universe and a different God?

    If all these reasons are unconvincing, I’ve saved my favorite for last. It’s a theological problem. It seems like God doesn’t have control over our experiences of the divine (at least the drug-induced ones), since the experiences are caused by us and by chemicals. What sort of god is this?

    Whig wrote: You are afraid of solipsism, I see. And it is what you hold inside yourself, when you do not recognize the divinity within the other.

    Your powers of perception are truly staggering.

    I had a crushed hip, which I was advised by physicians to tolerate as long as I could, lest a replacement be temporary. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to continue to walk as long as possible?

    The painkilling and otherwise salutary effects of cannabis are not at issue. I’ve heard that cannabis is a most useful plant, and I’ve no particular motive to doubt that.

    I’m curious if Michael aka Snaars detects any impairment of my own faculties since I am admittedly and presently affected by cannabis. I say the effect is positive, and does not impair my reason in the slightest.

    Thanks for the conversation, Whig. I will not insist that you accept any of my skeptical arguments.

    Reply

  74. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 22:30:10

    Michael aka Snaars, you have evaded the questions I asked, in order to proclaim a bunch of nonsense about drugs which are inapposite to cannabis.

    Do you eat chocolate? It will affect your perceptions and consciousness.

    Do you drink tea? Same.

    Why do you hold cannabis out as a plant to avoid? Its effects are salutary and enjoyable, by most accounts, and it is demonstrably benign, without toxicity, unlike so many of the things you unquestionably do consume.

    Even water has a toxic dose. Cannabis does not.

    Your reasoning by analogy to dreaming is fallacious, as I cannot write to you when dreaming and record my thoughts, and am clearly impaired from a standpoint of further communication while asleep.

    You have detected no impairment of my cannabis affected state, I presume.

    Reply

  75. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 22:43:57

    Some experiences are delusional, period. We should test extraordinary experiences to see if they are real or veridical. Why should we hold your claims, Whig, to a lower standard than we would hold any other claim? We know we can be mistaken, so we should have some supporting evidence that is independent of the actual experience. Simply having an experience is not enough to justify a belief – we should have some reason to believe the experience is accurate.

    Indeed, we should test our extraordinary experiences. You are denying the need to make observations, however.

    Reply

  76. whig
    Feb 05, 2007 @ 23:15:07

    Incidentally, if you decide to change your mind, in case you have a tendency to think verbal thoughts to yourself, my inner God is the same as yours, and we aren’t opponents of one another. We are just different faces on the same connected consciousness.

    That’s what’s happening with the internet, too. The consciousness of the group-mind is greater than the sum of its inputs.

    Reply

  77. Jamie
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 02:00:44

    Stephen:

    I feel a bit silly commenting at this point, because I seem to be interupting a discussion that has gone in an entirely different direction from what I was going to comment on. Ah well…hopefully you won’t mind the interuption.

    You say: There’s no basis for considering consciousness to be part of the human “spirit”; no reason to suppose that human beings have any special capacity (i.e., a capacity beyond that of animals) to enter into personal relationship with a God of pure spirit.

    I am curious why you think this is so. Is consciousness less real because it can be directly correlated to brain activity? Even if consciousness is “created” by the brain, does that negate the fact that consciousness is part of the human spirit? (I guess I’m not even sure what spirit is, per se…is there a difference between consciousness and spirit?)

    Also, regardless of our theories of consciousness, surely it is obvious that humans have a special and distinct capacity to enter into a personal relationship with God. Even if we all have the same type of consciousness, there is a difference between human capacity and animal capacity.

    (Maybe it’s relevant to note that I come from a non-dualistic perspective. I am a Christian but I don’t accept the idea of an immortal soul dwelling in a physical body. If the physical body dies, the person is gone. It therefore does not seem fundamentally strange to me that one’s spirit/consciousness is intimately connected with one’s body/brain.)

    Reply

  78. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 02:31:44

    Jamie, the body does not die, it transforms.

    The cells of your body become yeast, the yeast grow and colonize other forms, you evolve.

    We never die.

    Reply

  79. Stephen
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 08:37:13

    • Michael, Whig:

    I think Michael was signalling his withdrawal from the discussion, likely because he didn’t feel it would be instructive to continue.

    Your dialogue was testy at times, but there were one or two peace offerings along the way, too. I trust there’s no lasting ill will.

    • Michael:
    Maybe I could give you a drug that made you believe you were drowning, or made it seem to you that you were covered in insects.

    The problem with this example is that it confuses the two modes of perception. Your other example, of running on broken legs, does the same.

    I’m arguing that God inhabits a spiritual dimension, beyond the perception of ordinary consciousness. If we use some means to alter consciousness, so that we are open to the spiritual realm, we should expect a corresponding impairment of our perception of the physical realm. Perception is open primarily to one or primarily to the other; but not both equally.

    Whig makes a good point here: i.e., that cannabis doesn’t impair our ability in the way that other drugs do. I think there is some impairment; but people do manage to carry out day-to-day activities successfully while under the influence. Cannabis isn’t akin to hallucinogens.

    That said, Michael, you also make some good points. People interpret their mystical experiences according to their prior beliefs. Can’t God control our experiences so that the message comes through clearly?

    I don’t think that’s a final response to the question I asked, but it’s food for thought. The topic is one that I haven’t studied, so I’m reaching the end of my meagre insights pretty quickly!

    • Jamie:
    I am a Christian but I don’t accept the idea of an immortal soul dwelling in a physical body. If the physical body dies, the person is gone.

    Thanks for that comment. It certainly fits with the Hebrew worldview, wherein body and spirit together make the person / personality. Hence the Christian emphasis on bodily resurrection, because the notion of a disembodied spirit was repugnant to the Jewish mind. As you put it, if the body dies, the person is gone.

    I’m trying to preserve the idea of a fundamental distinction between human beings and animals, based on consciousness or spirit.

    In the description of creation in Genesis, God breaths into Adam’s lungs. He thereby brings Adam’s body to life, but he also puts his Spirit into Adam (breath = spirit = wind — all the same word in Hebrew). The effect of the account is to set Adam apart from anything else in creation.

    But I’m not dismissing your non-dualist perspective. You give me reason to consider another way of approaching the issue, which may be less vulnerable to attack from science.

    On the other hand — I know you don’t subscribe to evolution. Your model makes it easier to conceive of human beings as descended from animals, and consciousness as a purely naturalist phenomenon.

    Reply

  80. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 09:12:01

    Stephen,
    If we use some means to alter consciousness, so that we are open to the spiritual realm, we should expect a corresponding impairment of our perception of the physical realm.

    I’d be much more willing to accept that hypothesis if there were any other reliable, independant evidence for a spiritual realm.

    How many comments is this? Gotta be a record!

    Reply

  81. Jamie
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 11:39:33

    I’m trying to preserve the idea of a fundamental distinction between human beings and animals, based on consciousness or spirit.

    You, who believe we are descended from lower life forms, attempt to preserve a distinction, and I, who reject such a theory of descent, don’t feel compelled to preserve the distinction. Some this seems a bit backward. 😉

    Your model makes it easier to conceive of human beings as descended from animals, and consciousness as a purely naturalist phenomenon.

    Not any more than the presence of DNA in all living things makes it easier to conceive of human beings as descended from animals. Think of it this way: If the same God created all life, would they not all have similar building blocks? Based on that line of thinking, I don’t see any difficulty with recognizing that human consciousness/spirit is in essence like animal consciousness/spirit. This is biblical, too:

    For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. (Ecc. 3:19; cf. also Gen. 2:7 and 7:15, which suggests that animals have the same spirit/breath that we have.)

    But I don’t think this erases the distinction between animals and humans: Humans ARE different, and we have a unique capacity to commune with God. I just don’t think the difference lies in the fundamental nature of our consciousness or spirit.

    One other question: If the self is an illusion, am I right to conclude that free will is also an illusion?

    Reply

  82. Stephen
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 12:37:32

    • Michael:
    Wordpress gives me the (potentially evil) power to edit or delete other people’s comments. When you and I cross-posted, you expressed second thoughts about your comment. So I assume it’s OK with you … I deleted that comment and cleaned up the intro to your next comment.
    🙂

    Reply

  83. Stephen
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 12:51:52

    • Jamie:
    If the same God created all life, would they not all have similar building blocks?

    I’m aware of that argument, and I have some further thoughts on it. But I’ll communicate them in a different forum. I was building up to it in my series, “Why I am an evolutionist”, but I got sidetracked. I’ll probably come back to it at a suitable time.

    You quote Ecclesiastes in support of your position. Ecclesiastes is one of the clearest examples of the variety of conflicting points of view contained in the Bible. It’s a book written entirely, or almost entirely, from within a naturalist frame of reference.

    Remember that these books were edited by pious scribes during transmission, and the original copies are long gone. It’s possible that even such nods to God as the book contains were not original to it. I think Ecclesiastes offers a very stimulating analysis of the human experience. But it must be understood as one man’s insight, within my view of the faith as a dialogue between people of diverse perspectives.

    If the self is an illusion, am I right to conclude that free will is also an illusion?

    Yes. The link (in the post) to Jewish Atheist’s blog begins with a discussion of free will, then comes around to the conclusion that there is no self.

    However, I suppose it would be possible to believe in the existence of a self and yet deny that the self has free will.

    Reply

  84. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 12:51:57

    Michael aka Snaars, while you would walk away from this discussion without answering, I appreciate that you might not be willing to accept that reality is more complex than your present theories account for.

    Cannabis is not a chemical, it is a plant, and is not comparable to synthetic chemical alteration. It does not alter the perception to perceive that which is otherwise unperceivable but it makes certain things easier or more obvious to perceive.

    I am just awoke, and have eaten or consumed nothing since before I went to bed, so my consciousness is as “ordinary” as yours now.

    No, my points are broadly applicable to chemical-induced experiences. Your claim is that you experience god through the use of cannabis, is it not? You assert that I will similarly experience god if I use cannabis in the way you proscribe – do you not?

    I do not. I say that it is a way of seeing certain things more clearly. What you choose to look at is always up to you, to some extent. Of course, if you look out the window you may see things you didn’t expect.

    To answer your question: the point isn’t about how different foods affect a given subject’s mental state, but about what kind of mental states are reliable and what kinds of reasoning lead to truth.

    The foods I eat don’t cause me to sense the presence of entities that are not verifiable by any other means.

    I’m not sure what entities you expect, but I wear glasses or contacts to see better. Should I not regard my enhanced vision as reliable because altered?

    Shortly, perhaps before completing this reply, I will go and alter my consciousness with some tea. Not cannabis tea, but ordinary tea. It focuses my perception in some ways like my glasses do.

    Some foods and beverage have more “lensing” effects than others. Some are more distorting than helpful. Alcohol is particularly distorting, for instance. Do you ever drink?

    Some people naturally have better vision than others, and some don’t need glasses at all. You might not yourself need them to see well. I do.

    Glasses are wholly artificial, a human invention, and yet we rely upon them as trustworthy. I see things when I wear glasses that I cannot see otherwise. Those perceptions are confirmed by experience, in that I can verify them with others who perceive the same things.

    Cannabis is wholly natural, a creation of God or nature as you prefer, and some people do rely upon it as beneficial. Others decline to do so for a variety of reasons mostly connected with fear of the unknown and a long series of dishonest pronouncements from prohibitionists that falsely connected cannabis with addiction, synthetic and semi-synthetic “drugs” that cause injury or death, and a great deal of racism at the bottom. It is now well established (despite the best efforts of the prohibitionists to block research demonstrating it) that cannabis is benign and beneficial to health. Cannabis does enhance certain perception, like that of music, and this perception is confirmed by experience and verified with others.

    Do you dispute any of this?

    I’ll continue in a bit once I’ve finished making tea.

    Reply

  85. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 13:09:49

    [brief segue]

    I think what I will do from here out with this comment is constrain myself to talk about music, because I think you will agree with me that music is something that exists and that you can perceive with or without cannabis.

    Nonetheless, music can be perceived more clearly with cannabis, to a greater or less extent depending on your natural ability to hear and appreciate it.

    Music is one way that we communicate with one another, it is a language, actually many languages, but which cross boundaries that spoken and written words cannot. I can listen and appreciate the music of a Russian composer without translation, something I could not do with a written text.

    Would you like to perceive music better, or do you think music is a waste of time?

    Reply

  86. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 13:16:14

    In the interest of full disclosure and because I have the legal right to consume cannabis in the state of California as a qualified medical user with a recommending physician, I have vaporized a bit and am slowly going to be consuming that as I am drinking my tea, because it helps me start my day in a more comfortable way. I will be commenting as the effects rise, and you can observe it as well as you might without similar enhancement. Nevertheless, this writing is not only for you but for all who read it.

    I would like to play music for you, and ask you to listen. Let’s start here. Do you like it?

    Reply

  87. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 13:30:54

    Now if you have just finished watching it, as I did (obviously I have watched it before, since it’s posted on my blog), you have just seen and heard a tapestry on the creation of the world by a master, a God-inspired (and he was very religious, leave there no doubt in your mind about Mr. Bach) scripture which by its writing and performance did create a new world, the Enlightenment.

    Now I can see that clearly, and I can speak it in these words, but you might not see it at all, you might not use the same words. That is perfectly fine as a matter of different perspective. But my perspective is now very much enhanced as compared to my waking, with the use of a bit (and it’s only been a small bit) of cannabis, and a half of a cup of some green tea. My musical sense is focused in the same way as glasses focus my vision.

    Now, if you doubt that this perception is veridical, to use your preferred word, you may confirm it with any musician.

    Reply

  88. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 13:41:05

    To be scientific, you would not need to ask a single musician, of course, you’d need a survey, and you couldn’t count on honest answers given the legal implications of admitting cannabis use, which does create a bit of a bind. We are living in a bit of a subjective world on this subject, as if glasses were illegal to wear and those who had worn them would privately assure one another that they “cure blindness” (by which they would mean functional blindness, and it’s not a cure but a treatment that suffices, but this is how people talk). And the blind “scientists” would refuse to put on glasses, but would analyze the glass and say there is nothing in the glass that would help an eye.

    Do you disbelieve that cannabis helps you hear music better? Isn’t that enough of a reason to try it?

    Reply

  89. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 13:58:09

    A Google search on “Bach Enlightenment” brings up as the first result this page. Thus confirming my perception, which is something that I already knew at some level of recall but did not know that I knew. Cannabis aids this kind of recall. It is very helpful for those with Alzheimer’s disease because it restores memory function to those who have lost it, but it also focuses memory for those who have normal recall.

    It takes some experience to learn how to use a lens, and how to regard your observations as reliable and when to regard them as a distortion. This takes some time and practice with cannabis as with anything else.

    Reply

  90. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 14:03:54

    On reconsideration, glasses were discovered naturally, it would seem evident, since they would be created in volcanoes and scattered around. A person might discover a prismatic lens or a lens of any particular shape, and while it would not likely correct vision to a modern standard of 20/20, it would certainly by chance help some people to see better than they would otherwise.

    The science of optics is what then refined those lenses into shapes that work better for this and other purposes.

    Reply

  91. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 14:05:58

    Similarly, cannabis has been cultivated by humans for millennia to suit different needs, and the lack of good published research on the science of cannabis therapeutics is due purely to the prohibition regime.

    Reply

  92. whig
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 14:59:27

    We do have some research journals now, by the way. I don’t want to belabor the point but in rereading what I had written I had left a false implication that we don’t have good published research. Just not widespread, and limited by prohibition. For instance, a scientist cannot legally obtain cannabis in the United States to perform research unless given specific approvals from multiple agencies, and this is routinely denied unless the government is sponsoring the research. Moreover, the government sponsored research is driven by policy imperatives to demonstrate a harmful property of cannabis. That these have failed to identify one is significant.

    Anyhow, I know I’ve been long-winded today and this was kind of my “in lieu of a post” on my own blog, I guess, and I hope Stephen won’t mind too much.

    Reply

  93. Stephen
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 15:24:26

    It’s OK, Whig. As always, I find your perspective fascinating and provocative.

    Reply

  94. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 15:33:45

    Stephen wrote:

    • Michael:
    Wordpress gives me the (potentially evil) power to edit or delete other people’s comments. When you and I cross-posted, you expressed second thoughts about your comment. So I assume it’s OK with you … I deleted that comment and cleaned up the intro to your next comment.

    You can let things stand as they are, but you have my permission to restore the comment if you want to (or can).

    In my own blog I like to have the last word – to highlight what I feel were the best points in the thread, or to thank people for commenting, or whatever. It just seemed to me that you were wrapping things up. You do what you feel is best.

    Reply

  95. Stephen
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 15:43:15

    I think it’s gone into the ether now. But I think it has all worked out OK.

    Reply

  96. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 06, 2007 @ 17:46:17

    Coming in as the late commenter (although doubtless this post will be receiving comments for a long while yet) I do have a thought.

    Michael, you stated:

    I’d be much more willing to accept that hypothesis if there were any other reliable, independent evidence for a spiritual realm.

    I think Whig hinged on something when he pointed out that there is nothing stated about beliefs in rationality. It seems logical that in a situation where there is neither proof for nor against a concept, then any individual is free to believe as they see fit, without limiting their ability to be seen as rational.

    While it is true that there is no practical evidence that such a realm is in existence, there is also no evidence that it does not. This is likely rooted in the fact that the only ways to disprove such a spiritual realm would be to prove it exists, because otherwise there is no way to interact with it in an experimental way. Thus, tolerance of the choice of any theist (which includes myself) to believe in a spiritual realm seems in order.

    This is not to say, Michael, that you are doing anything but. I am simply reiterating that there seems to be some flexibility to the amount that one can criticize those who believe in a deity of one form or another.

    What has yet to be noted is that, while this can certainly be applied to the spiritual realm, it also can very well be applied to the traditional view of the physical realm. The physical realm is established on a number of laws, and yet any creation story that excludes any divine inference clearly defies the laws of the universe as well. There is very little conclusive knowledge about exactly how the universe came into existence, because, simply put, there are no witnesses from that period of time, should we take it from a billions-of-years perspective rather than the theist creationist views. This means that a divinity-less formation of the universe relies on some undiscovered physical law that makes such an event plausible. As far as I can see, this means that an atheistic view of the universe is based on faith as much as a theistic one. And removing the beginning of the universe does little to change this, since believing in an eternal universe seems in and of itself to defy many laws that are in place.

    This, of course, leads to some alternative views which some of my friends have come up with, including a divine figure who created the universe, and then got bored and walked away to wherever it may have had to go, leaving life to develop on its own; evolutionary creationists, who believe God or the gods guided the flow of evolution along a certain path; or pure creationism. All of these are based on the faith in some divine figure, yes, but to say that it is irrational to have this faith seems unfair, given that atheism is also based on a series of unknowns — unknowns which can neither be proved nor disproved, since the only way to truly prove it would be to reproduce the exact same situation, and even then one would have to assume that the reaction occurred at the beginning of the universe, and not some other undiscovered occurrence.

    Reply

  97. Stephen
    Feb 07, 2007 @ 10:56:33

    It seems logical that in a situation where there is neither proof for nor against a concept, then any individual is free to believe as they see fit, without limiting their ability to be seen as rational.

    I know what you’re getting at here, but I think you’ll agree if I said that your position can be pushed too far.

    I agree with your other point: i.e., that we’re all speculating about the origins of the cosmos. Cosmologists can amass certain kinds of evidence, but they can’t get back to the actual instant when the big bang (if it was a big bang) happened. They certainly can’t get behind that instant to scrutinize what caused it.

    Even so, I wouldn’t want to throw my hands up in despair and say, “Anybody’s guess is as good as anybody else’s.” And I don’t think you would, either. What can we do?

    1. We can look at the evidence we have, however partial it may be, and ask which position corresponds best with that evidence.

    2. We can analyze the coherence of a position: i.e., ask whether it “hangs together” or whether it’s full of internal contradictions. (Philosophy plays a major role here.)

    3. We can talk to one another, and seek to draw general conclusions from our subjective experiences.

    On the last point — I find the words and example of Jesus deeply moving and inspiring. Lots of people don’t share that experience, of course. But millions of others do, and perhaps that counts for something. Our subjective response to things is hardly an infallible guide to truth: but a message that resonates deeply with vast numbers of people surely warrants serious consideration.

    I wonder what other paths to knowledge people might propose, in addition to those I’ve listed? One that matters to me is the investigation of history, because my beliefs are centered in a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

    No doubt there are still other ways of knowing: i.e., of distinguishing between “less probable” and “more probable” opinions, where final evidence is unavailable.

    Reply

  98. whig
    Feb 07, 2007 @ 11:15:46

    Stephen, I think we can look to history for models of the present. My concern is not to repeat the past, but to improve upon it. This is essential, perhaps especially, for Christians, unless you like the idea of being stapled to a tree.

    What was done was what could be done in the circumstances then, and was what would convey the word to those who needed to hear it. There had to be a sacrifice then in order for there not to be one forever.

    Reply

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