On Beginnings; or, What If We Rendered the Full Catastrophe More Thoughtful?

I’m starting this post, this blog, with a quote from Philip K. Dick’s The Man In the High Castle (p. 243 in the online edition):

I feel the hot winds of karma driving me. Nevertheless I remain here. My training was correct: I must not shrink from the clear white light, for if I do, I will once more re-enter the cycle of birth and death, never knowing freedom, never obtaining release. The veil of maya will fall once more.

That about sums it up, what I want to say in this blog, through myriad ways: Do not shrink from the white light of your potential.  Do not choose not to choose.  Do not shirk responsibility.  And never, never stop learning.

To speak personally, I’m at a crossroads of sorts: I’ve got a new business pending (a yoga studio), and in the not-too-distant future I’m expecting challenges untypical of your average 40 hour a week, non-profit corporate finance job, which is how I’ve been feeding, clothing and sheltering myself for the past decade and a half.  There’ve been times during those years I felt on auto-pilot and complained to my wife about my “soul killing” work.  But I did not get off the track, not until I’d burnt up 14 long years.  Then I started wondering if things could be different (don’t worry, I’ll tell that story in a near-future post), and everything changed…

For now though I’d like to list some of the concerns looming largest in my mind, that will be subjects of future posts.  Here they are, in no particular order—and in ALL CAPS just so we’re all clear about their importance:

CHOICE

ATTITUDE

ETHICS-MORALITY (Are they the same?)

PERSONAL CULTURE/GROWTH

MEDITATION

LEARNING

MEANING

HUMAN POTENTIAL (The field within which all of the above happen.)

Considering this list, my decidedly lighthearted blog title might now stand out with somewhat more significance and gravitas.  “Karma,” to adopt the Buddhist definition, means “action,” and specifically willed or intentional action.  (“It is volition, monks, that I call karma.  For having willed, one acts by body, speech or mind.” -Anguttara Nikaya 6:63)  It is thus something of a double emphasis I’m giving the word when I say that we should Drive our intentional actions, which is an ungainly way of saying Wake up!  Take responsibility for what you’re about to do!  So this is my take on living intentionally, with wakefulness and clear-headedness and integrity.  Living Truth, that is.

Regarding this blog going forward: I’m not for a second pretending to know it all or have the answers—or any answers, for that matter.  But I’ll quote Chad, a friend and “intellectual comrade-in-arms,” on why one should voice one’s thoughts on these and similar fronts, even if one feels unprepared, ill-equipped, or badly informed:

It seems to me that problems are solved in only one of three essential ways: contemplation, conversation, or coercion. Without those willing to abandon coercive means (I include in this things like political correctness) and to press their contemplative practices into the service of conversation, there’s no hope for ourselves and our fellow primates.

So, my dear fellow primates, here are some of fruits of my contemplation, some gestures towards conversation…

 

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On Moral Absolutes; or, Why the Atheist I Was Rooting For Irritated Me

I recently had the pleasure of watching a debate between David Silverman, current president of the American Atheists, and Alex McFarland, a Christian apologist, on the question “Can Christianity Cause Immoral Behavior?”  They held this event, the latest in what has apparently become an ongoing series of confrontations, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which is how I became aware of it: my friend Chad (quoted in my most recent post) lives in Vancouver and was in the audience.

Silverman vs McFarland

Silverman is not only an atheist, he also subscribes to (I hesitate to say “believes in”) an ethical stance that is commonly attributed–albeit inappropriately–to atheists, that of moral relativism.  While this idea is touched upon repeatedly in the debate, Silverman expounds it most succinctly–and most painfully reveals its limitations–in this five minute snippet from another debate he participated in.  If you watch that bit, you’ll notice that at 3:34 he flies into a brick wall when, on the basis of his moral understanding, he asserts there is no legitimate way to condemn (or even complain about) what the Nazis did while in power.  So, if you think starting a world war and slaughtering twelve million people in concentration camps is bad, well…that is just an “opinion.”

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If you are shocked by this stance on ethics, you are not alone. In the UBC debate I just found it irritating; the snippet above renders it stupefying.  But this begs the question: how should an atheist respond when asked on what basis he or she would condemn the Nazis for their behavior?  Is there an intelligent and reasonable approach to ethics that does not require a Bronze Age sky god telling us what to do?

(Note: I’ve not previously stated my position on theism within the context of this blog, so this seems an appropriate place to clarify what I think: I’m an atheist, meaning I see no more reason to believe in the god of the Bible and Koran–they are the same–than I do in the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, or Bigfoot.  Please note this does not mean I adhere to any particular doctrines over and beyond what I just said.  “Atheism,” a most useless and misleading term, is in fact not an ism at all–it possesses no content, signifies nothing more than skepticism, and has no moral–or immoral–connotations.  You cannot know someone by the fact they’re an atheist, for there is no “there” there; no substance, no agenda, no teleology or ontology lurking within those seven letters.  It is certainly not something I “believe in,” “subscribe to” or derive comfort from.)

Before trying to answer the question of what might constitute a non-relativist atheist morality, I should note that discussions of morality between theists and atheists inevitably divide along these lines.  Theists argue from their position of alleged moral certitude, quoting verses from their favorite scripture and claiming their edition of God guarantees an objective standard from which to make moral choices, while atheists reject god and scramble to justify their moral preferences by some other means.  Thus from the start of any debate, atheists would seem to occupy the low ground, for their energy must be devoted first to explaining why anyone should prefer museums to crematoriums, democracy to fascism, or philanthropy to cannibalism.  In his lecture Existentialism Is A Humanism Sartre clarifies the existentialist (viz. atheist) position:

Existentialists, on the other hand, find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists, for along with his disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an unintelligible heaven. There could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it. Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared only by men. Dostoevsky once wrote: ‘If God does not exist,everything is permissible.’ This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on – neither within nor without. First, he finds there are no excuses. For if it is true that existence precedes essence, we can never explain our actions by reference to a given and immutable human nature. In other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. If, however, God does not exist, we will encounter no values or orders that can legitimize our conduct. Thus, we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse (pp. 28-9).

Image result for jean paul sartreWhile I doubt Sartre would go so far as to suggest condemning Nazis amounted to mere “opinion” (he spent nine months in a German prisoner-of-war camp), he clearly thinks morals, in the absence of God, must be relative constructs: socially and collectively conceived, perhaps, but ultimately a matter of personal choice and responsibility.

Theists, as already pointed out, have it easier.  They don’t have to think: they have merely to resort to Revelation, whereby they “know” or are told what the right course of action is.  In his debate with Silverman, McFarland went on at some length describing how an absolute reference point—God—acts as the arbiter or measuring stick for all values and behaviors.  Christian apologist and theologian William Lane Craig well describes this position:

So God, in his moral nature, is the paradigm of goodness. He is by nature essentially good, loving, kind, faithful, just, loyal, truthful, and so forth. So I see moral values as defined paradigmatically in God; that is to say, God is the standard. Then that moral nature issues in divine commandments to us. It is out of that nature that God commands us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves; that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind and so forth. These moral commandments then constitute our moral duties. This is the source of moral obligation for us that we are commanded by God, the paradigm of goodness, to do certain things (William Lane Craig at reasonablefaith.org).

Unfortunately for Craig, this passage invites some awkward questions.  How, for instance, can we tell the real God’s commandments from the idle babbling of pretenders and false prophets?  As a Christian apologist, it is safe to assume Craig accepts a priori that the Bible is the appropriate source for divine commandments, but to anyone who has not already made up their mind on the subject, this is not obviously the case–the world, after all, is a busy marketplace for sacred texts and tomes of higher knowledge.  Unless a loud voice begins pronouncing wisdom and warnings from the heavens on a regular basis, humanity will remain in the dark on how exactly to figure out which god is the real God and what exactly he/she/it’s saying.

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But let’s for a moment take Craig and the apologists at their word.  If we turn to the Bible, does the God we find there live up to His billing as the gold standard of morality?  Is the deity revealed in the pages between Genesis and Revelation in fact a “paradigm of goodness”?

Consider the following: While in one instance (Ex. 20:13, 15) Yahweh tells us not to kill or steal, in others (e.g. Josh 5-13, Deut. 7 et al) he urges a genocidal war in which murder and theft (and presumably rape) are well and fine.  When he turns to nation building and lawmaking we discover that stoning (Lev. 24:16, Deut. 17:2-7, Deut. 22:23-24 et al), slaughtering animals (Lev. 1:1 ff et al) to “make a pleasing odor” (Lev. 4:31) and slavery (Ex.21:1-4, Deut. 15:12-18, Lev. 25:44-46 et al) are considered acceptable—even virtuous—practices.  God himself is the author of global devastation (the Flood in Gen. 6-9), the destruction of cities (Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 8-9; Jericho in Josh. 6:1-27), the whimsical killing of people for the most trivial offenses (Onan’s death because he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law!!, Gen. 38:9-10), and the cruel manipulation of innocent bystanders (the Abraham-Isaac incident in Gen. 22 and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Ex. 7:3).

Contrary to popular press, it does not get better in the New Testament.  Jesus (Yahweh in human form) indulges in fits of rage (against the money changers at Mt. 21:12–17, Mk. 11:15–19, Lk. 19:45–48), needlessly blasts harmless vegetation (the fig tree in Mt. 21:18-19 and Mk. 11:13-14, 20), speaks anathema against anyone who doesn’t believe in him (Mt. 10:33, 13:40-42, Jn 15:6 et al), and encourages the laceration of disobedient slaves (Lk. 12:42-46).  On this last subject–slavery–the epistles are clear: it is a perfectly fine institution, so long as it is not accompanied by indiscriminate abuse (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 4:1, I Tim. 6:1-3 et al).  Yet by the seventeenth century many in Europe at least were beginning to recognize slavery for the abomination it is, and by the eighteenth-century nations began outlawing it (Russia in 1723, Scotland in 1778, Massachusetts in 1783, Spain in 1811, etc etc).  The United States—the so-called “land of the free”—was a real laggard in this regard, waiting until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.  (The supreme irony is that in any argument between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, the supporters always cited the Bible in their defense.) Thus in clear defiance of the Biblical deity’s mandates, men and women made the rational, moral choice to abolish this odious institution.

Finally, if we take Christianity at its face value, we are forced to conclude the majority of human beings who have lived in the past 2000 years will suffer eternity in hell—all because their skeptical intelligence or cultural upbringing prevented them from believing a first century Galilean carpenter was actually the creator of the universe in disguise.  This monstrous indictment, perpetrated on account of such happenstance triviality, is the grossest evil of the Biblical god, easily surpassing the accumulated horrors of the Old Testament.

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On account of the foregoing I submit that the Bible cannot offer any moral absolutes.  Like many other ancient texts that have managed to survive the ravages of time, it is simply literary detritus, which by odd turns of fortune has been elevated in stature such that a person today–say a William Lane Craig or an Alex McFarland–by the accident of his birth and upbringing might come to believe in the god of its pages as The Truth.  Theistic morals are thus every bit as arbitrary and subjective as those of Sartre’s existentialist.  They are worse, in fact, for as Sartre indicates in other passages of his lecture, the reflective person, in the absence of revelation, must take responsibility and do the hard work of determining for him or herself how to be good in the world–something the theist is forbidden to do.  And for the reflective person, this is not just a choice for himself: the more he considers the meaning of his actions, the more he realizes his actions are a template for everyone else:

And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.  In fact, in creating the man each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be.  Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose…  Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns all mankind…  (pp. 23-24).

A follower of Biblical or Koranic revelation can never attain this degree of subjective lucidity, for he or she cannot think beyond the text to which they are beholden.  The moment they do, they awaken and begin to think for themselves, and for that person, the God of the text has ceased to make all the rules.

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Sartre points us in the right direction: you have to take stock of your situation in the world, you have to consider what you will do, and you have to accept responsibility for what comes of your actions.  But Sartre does not, I think, rise above the charge of relativism.  So is there a way to go from here to a moral absolute?  I’ll try to describe that path in my next post…..

 

On the Meaning of Life; or, Why Being Happy Has Nothing To Do With Anything At All

“I am here to learn.”

That’s what I said on one memorable occasion many years ago when two friends of mine, Ryan and Kofi, plus my wife, were sitting in a restaurant for a meal together talking over the immemorial question, the “meaning of life.”  I forget Kofi’s answer (my wife’s as well).  I think at that point he was in the process of converting to Christianity, though I was never clear what, in his mind, he had been before that momentous event.  He was my biz school buddy, a thoughtful Ghanaian fellow whom I found easily conversational and—for a business student—surprisingly reflective.  We worked on many projects together in a number of classes.  I remember him fondly not so much for any opinion he held as for the fact he seemed to really enjoy questioning me on everything.

My other friend, Ryan, was a PhD in biochemistry and working on a degree in law—a killer combo that, as now he lives in Greenwich, CT and works as a patent lawyer.  His wife, who always wanted to live the life of an aristocratic stay-at-home mom, got her wish.  Ryan though, despite his education, was not as reflective as Kofi, and perhaps that’s why I remember his answer.  Ryan said the meaning of life was “to be happy.

I immediately felt terribly dissatisfied with that answer—it was way, way, way, way too easy.  You already know my answer.

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So why?  Why did I feel my brilliant friend’s answer was wrong and my answer right—or at least much better?  And why do I still feel that way?

I want to emphasize: answers in this domain are neither right nor wrong.  Despite the pontifications of certain Iron Age mythologies to the contrary, life, by its very nature, is never binary: good/bad, right/wrong, well spent/squandered, etc.  Yes, one is either alive or dead (on/off), but that’s not the point.  We’re talking about life itself, not what comes after it, either in the religious or biological sense.

I’d like to first point out that the variability of our answers—and feel free to include your own in the mix—is clear proof that my meaning in life is not yours.  There is no single answer, such as “42” as calculated by Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy.  So the question “What is the meaning of life?” is wrongly put.  This much ought to be obvious.  We are not looking for a meaning so much as meaning in general, as in, I find my life meaningful because of so-and-so, or, more to the point, so-and-so is meaningful for me.

Ironically, this would seem to prove Ryan’s point.  For him, and several billion others whom I suspect share his viewpoint, happiness is what is meaningful.  But what if while living in his beautiful house with his beautiful wife something bad should happen?  The house burns down.  The wife dies or goes crazy or has an affair.  Their son tumbles out of a window and is paralyzed for life.  What if conditions obstruct or defer his experience of happiness?  What if, that is, suffering intervenes?  Has Ryan’s erstwhile happy and therefore meaningful life become meaningless?

I would say no.

Herein lies the problem with happiness as the point of life—it is too fickle.  This is not to say some people cannot be happy under the most adverse conditions; however, regardless of how naturally cheerful you might be, deriving enjoyment from your circumstances as one’s raison d’être is a recipe for disaster.  It is also, I should add, a recipe for slavery to the very circumstances you once relied upon to ensure happiness.

Image result for viktor franklConsider the case of Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and author of Man’s Search For Meaning.  He lived in four different camps, lost his wife and children, and was reduced to the barest, most miserable level of existence with no end in sight except death by accident, disease, abuse or the gas chamber.  (He could not, of course, know just how the war was unfolding.)  He concluded that while camp existence constituted a daily horror show, it was—or could be—profoundly meaningful.  What mattered was not your happiness—a thing generally in short supply in such places—but your attitudes, values and choices.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not (Man’s Search For Meaning, p. 88).

I would argue that while “happiness” (for which read emotional pleasure) as a determinant of meaning and purpose would collapse in the face of such conditions as prevailed at Auschwitz, that of learning–of curiosity, the will to growth and ennoblement–would not, indeed could not, so long as the value was held fast to.  Suffering and unhappiness are inevitable and inescapable; they have to be embraced if the organism is to learn and thrive and transcend its temporary conditions.

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