Tag Archives: Bruce Charlton

Synchronicity: Elijah, the prophets of Baal, and Pascal

This afternoon I had lunch with the local Mormon missionaries, and we chatted about various things. The discussion turned to some of the more shocking religious practices in Taiwan, and I told them about a ceremony I had witnessed a year or two ago, in which a man had danced around beating and cutting himself with a variety of nasty-looking implements, his goal being to obtain permission from God A to let God B (of whose temple he was a representative) pay a social visit to God A’s temple; some 20 minutes later, by which time the man was completely covered with blood, God A finally relented and granted permission.

I mentioned that this had reminded me of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (The prophets, as you will recall, “cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them,” hoping thereby to get Baal’s attention.) The elders didn’t seem to know that story very well, so I told it to them in some detail.

Later in our conversation, they asked what I was doing these days in terms of religion, and I told them that at the moment my religious activity was pretty much limited to reading and pondering a large number of religious books. I showed them the one I was working on at the moment — Krailsheimer’s translation of Pascal’s Pensées — and we discussed Pascal and his ideas a bit.

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After we’d finished eating, the elders went back to proselyting, and I went back to the college. I still had half an hour or so before my next class, so I pulled out the aforementioned Pascal book; I was on page 281. After a few minutes of reading, I came to page 287 — and the first line on the page read simply: “I Kings XVIII: Elijah with the prophets of Baal.”

So just minutes after discussing both the Baal story and the Pascal book, I find a reference to the Baal story in the Pascal book. (I need scarcely mention that I ordinarily go for years at a stretch without speaking, reading, or thinking about the prophets of Baal.)

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Update: More synchronicity! Immediately after posting this, I went to Bruce Charlton’s blog and found he had posted an excerpt from a Blake Ostler interview — and essentially everything Ostler says in that excerpt was also said in the course of my conversation with the elders.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Old Testament, Taiwan

Dormouse / Dolbear

A couple of days ago it suddenly occurred to me — after how many years of reading Lewis Carroll? — why the Dormouse in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is always falling asleep. It’s a pun, reading dor-mouse as dorm-ouse. Carroll wrote for a generation of children who still studied Latin and would know that a “dormous” creature would be a sleepy one.

Out of curiosity, I looked up dormouse in an etymological dictionary to find out what the dor- part meant — and I found that Carroll’s “dormous” interpretation was not actually a pun but was literally correct. Although there is some uncertainty about the etymology of dormouse, the most likely theory is that it derives from French dormeuse (“sleeper,” feminine), and that the final syllable was later, erroneously, reinterpreted as “mouse.” The dormouse hibernates, hence the name. The association in English between dormice and sleeping is not original to Carroll, but appears in Shakespeare: “to awake your dormouse valour” (Twelfth Night).

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Just minutes after checking that etymology, I checked a few blogs I read, including Bruce Charlton’s Tolkien blog. This was the latest post:

What is the meaning (fanciful etymology) of Dolbear’s name?

I guess ‘bear’ means bear, because Dolbear is stereotypically bear like^ – while ‘Dol’ means pain, and is the medical ‘unit’ for pain – so maybe this is a pun on the fact that the real-life model for Dolbear – Havard – contributed an appendix to CS lewis’s book ‘The Problem of Pain’.

This Dolbear may mean ‘Pain (expert)-bear’.

^Tendency to fall asleep, gruffness, hairiness.

(Dolbear is a character in Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, the work with which Bruce’s blog is primarily concerned.)

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I find this to be quite a remarkable coincidence. Bruce, too, is exploring the “fanciful etymology” of the name of a fictional character which ends in an ordinary English animal name (mouse, bear) and begins with a partial Latin root (dor suggests dormiredoldolor). Both names begin with Do-. To top it all off, Bruce even mentions a “tendency to fall asleep.”

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Life, or knowledge of good and evil: choose one

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

— Proverbs 14:12 (and 16:25)

The upshot of my discussion (qv) of Bruce Charlton’s argument against atheism is that, yes, it is very likely a pathological belief — but that we cannot therefore write it off as a delusion. It is pathological not because it misrepresents reality, but because (like most religions) it fails to provide the artificial motives which are necessary in order to induce human populations to reproduce themselves under modern conditions. Humans, like many zoo animals, don’t breed well “in captivity” (i.e., in an unnatural and evolutionarily novel environment), and most belief systems, including all known atheistic ones, fail to cure that problem.

Only a handful of belief systems (the most prominent being Mormonism) qualify as non-pathological under modern conditions. The problem is that, by ordinary standards of evidence, these belief systems just don’t seem to be true. For Dr. Charlton, Mormonism’s effectiveness as an antidote to the modern pathology of voluntary infertility is evidence for its truth. However, the pathology is not essentially about incorrect beliefs, but about the inadequacy of evolved motives to induce reproduction under evolutionarily novel conditions. If certain forms of theism can cure that pathology, this is not evidence that they are true, but only that they are expedient under modern conditions. (The pathology will correct itself in any case, either by evolutionary changes in human nature or by the collapse of modernity — most likely the latter. However, if we want to continue to be both modern and human — and we do — it would certainly be expedient to convert to Mormonism or something similar.)

So, we find ourselves in the dilemma described in Proverbs: The beliefs that seem right lead to death; the beliefs that will save us seem wrong. If we — not we individuals, but we cultures, we nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples — choose to die for what we believe (or disbelieve), is that heroic or just stupid? The Christian answer is clear: If your eyes cause you to fall, pluck them out; better to enter into life blind than to perish outright.

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The writer who addresses this dilemma most explicitly is Friedrich Nietzsche. I hadn’t read Beyond Good and Evil since I was a child, but a couple of days ago I felt a sudden urge to reread it (in Marianne Cowan’s English translation). By “coincidence,” I found that passage after passage tied into the train of thought triggered by Dr. Charlton’s post.

Here is section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil, which states the dilemma in the clearest possible terms:

The falseness of a given judgment does not constitute an objection against it, so far as we are concerned. It is perhaps in this respect that our new language sounds strangest. The real question is how far a judgment furthers and maintains life, preserves a given type, possibly cultivates and trains a given type. We are, in fact, fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments (to which belong the synthetic a priori judgments) are the most indispensable to us, that man cannot live without accepting the logical fictions as valid, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the absolute, the immutable, without constantly falsifying the world by means of numeration. That getting along without false judgments would amount to getting along without life, negating life. To admit untruth as a necessary condition of life: this implies, to be sure, a perilous resistance against customary value-feelings. A philosophy that risks it nonetheless, if it did nothing else, would by this alone have taken its stand beyond good and evil.

People will call this nihilism, but of course it is not. Nietzsche is not saying that nothing matters; he is saying that life matters — that it matters more than truth itself, and that any judgment, be it never so “true,” which stands in the way of life must be sacrificed. I myself have already taken a step down the Nietzschean path by choosing to accept the doctrine of free will — despite the fact that I know it to be logically self-contradictory — because it seems pragmatically necessary for life. Nietzsche forces us to face the uncomfortable fact that to think this way — to accept untrue or probably-untrue beliefs because they “further life” — is to “take a stand beyond good and evil.”

Essentially all modern Christians do this, and will generally admit to doing it if pressed. In the faith even of one who professes to “know beyond a shadow of a doubt” there lurks an element of Pascal’s Wager, of freely choosing beliefs which seem expedient rather than being compelled by adequate evidence. No Christian thinks of this as a Nietzschean move, or as being “beyond good and evil.” (Christians generally dislike Nietzsche, perhaps because he shines too bright a light on them.)

But this choosing to accept false beliefs is not a uniquely religious phenomenon. As Nietzsche says, everyone does it — because it is literally necessary for life — but some are more honest than others about it. Atheists are generally the least honest, Christians a great deal more so — but they still fall short of the unblinking, spade-calling candor of Nietzsche himself.

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But perhaps one of our necessary, life-furthering delusions is the belief that no delusion is necessary or life-furthering. There is an obvious element of paradox in being so honest about our need for self-deception, in insisting on the important truth that truth is not the most important thing. Nietzsche’s paradoxical insistence that, while truth is of secondary importance, honesty is essential, is perhaps best understood in light of the above quotation. ” The real question” is not only “how far a judgment furthers and maintains life,” but also how far it “preserves a given type.” Nietzsche is not — though he seems at first glance to be — advocating a philosophy of “better a live dog than a dead lion.” “Type” — dog or lion — matters just as much as life, and as becomes clear later in Nietzsche’s book, the human type he wishes to preserve is one characterized by courage, and by the candor which comes with courage.

What tempts us to look at all philosophers half suspiciously and half mockingly is not so much that we recognize again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and lose their way, in short their childishness and childlike-ness — but rather that they are not sufficiently candid, though they make a great virtuous noisy to-do as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched upon. Every one of them pretends that he has discovered and reached his opinions through the self-development of cold, pure, divinely untroubled dialectic (in distinction to the mystics of every rank who, more honest and fatuous, talk about “inspiration”), whereas, at bottom, . . . a heart’s desire, made abstract and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought after the fact. They are all of them lawyers (though wanting to be called anything but that), and for the most part quite sly defenders of their prejudices, which they christen “truths” — very far removed they are from the courageous conscience which admits precisely this; very remote from the courageous good taste which makes sure that others understand. (from Beyond Good and Evil, Section 5)

The problem is that the stance Nietzsche is advocating — embracing “life-furthering” beliefs rather than true ones, expedience rather than principle — is hardly one that we would normally associate with courage. The courageous stance is the one expressed by Arthur Hugh Clough: “It fortifies my soul to know / That, though I perish, Truth is so” — compared with which Nietzsche’s own position seems more like a craven selling-out.

Truth, however, is not the only principle for which one can courageously take a stand. As becomes clear in the next (i.e., the sixth) section of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche’s courageous man exhibits fealty not to the impersonal “truth” but to his own personal “moral intentions.”

Gradually I have come to realize what every great philosophy up to now has been: the personal confession of its originator, a type of involuntary and unaware memoirs; also that the moral (or amoral) intentions of each philosophy constitute the protoplasm from which each entire plant has grown. Indeed, one will do well (and wisely), if one wishes to explain to himself how on earth the more remote metaphysical assertions of a philosopher ever arose, to ask each time: What sort of morality is this (is he) aiming at? . . . there is nothing impersonal whatever in a philosopher. And particularly his morality testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is — that is, what order of rank the innermost desires of his nature occupy.

The courageous man, then, is one who wishes to live a particular kind of life and who orders his beliefs so as to further that goal — both in terms of staying alive and in terms of living by that particular morality.

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This is ultimately unsatisfying, though. If there is no bedrock of objective truth — or if there is, but we choose to ignore it as irrelevant — then none of these supposedly “heroic” choices people are making really mean anything. A man’s chosen morality “testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is,” says Nietzsche, making it sound terribly momentous — but without some fixed standard of real morality grounded in actual truth, “who he is” is just a bit of meaningless trivia; preferring morality A to morality B is no more significant than preferring chocolate over strawberry ice cream. There can be no real courage or heroism without something objective in which to ground it.

Even Nietzsche seems to see this at times. Much later in Beyond Good and Evil (section 39) he appears to backtrack from his earlier position and to stress the importance of truth — truth at all costs, even if knowing the truth should result in vice, misery, and death.

No one very easily takes a doctrine as true because it makes one happy or virtuous. . . . Happiness and virtue are not arguments. But we like to forget — even sensible thinkers do — that things making for unhappiness or for evil are not counter-arguments, either. Something might be true, even though it is harmful and dangerous in the greatest degree; it might in fact belong to the basic make-up of things that one should perish from its full recognition. Then the strength of a given thinker would be measured by the amount of “the truth” that he could stand.

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Ultimately, the only humanly acceptable state of affairs is one in which we don’t need to make such trade-offs — one in which truth, life, virtue, and happiness are all mutually compatible. The only acceptable way in which to live is in the faith that that is indeed true: that the Good is a unitary thing which can be pursued in its entirety, without the need to permanently sacrifice one aspect of it to another.

Even that faith cannot obviate the need to make tough choices between truth and life, though, since they often seem to be incompatible. Do we embrace beliefs that seem true, in the faith that they will ultimately turn out to be life-sustaining as well; or do we choose beliefs that seem expedient, in the faith that they will turn out to be true?

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Bruce Charlton’s case that atheism is incoherent

In a recent blog post, Bruce Charlton makes the case that Atheism is always incoherent, incompetent or unserious; coherent thinkers *must be* theists. Now I am no longer the atheist I once was — I am willing to entertain theism as a working hypothesis (which is of course still a long way from actually believing it). However, I do think that atheism is a reasonably coherent point of view — or, at any rate, that its inherent problems as a philosophy are no worse than the problems inherent in theism. I therefore want to go through Dr. Charlton’s points one by one and analyze them.

In what follows, italicized paragraphs represent summaries or paraphrases of points made by Dr. Charlton. Paragraphs in roman type present my own ideas.

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1. The terms of the debate

Theism and atheism are metaphysical assumptions, not empirical conclusions. They should be judged not by comparing the evidence for and against each view, but by comparing the positive and negative consequences of believing them.

I think it is probably true that there can be no empirical evidence for or against theism simply as such, because it is such a vague proposition. However, the more specific theological claims of individual religions often do have implications which are subject to empirical testing and/or logical disproof.

Where empirical evidence is unavailable or inadequate, it is indeed appropriate to evaluate competing beliefs by their probable consequences — i.e., by criteria of expediency as opposed to truth. This is what lies behind the principle of presumption of innocence without proof of guilt; lacking conclusive evidence, we judge it more expedient to risk one kind of error than the other. My assumption that I have free will (see You should believe in free will) is also based on expediency rather than evidence (since there can be no empirical evidence regarding the ontological status of things that don’t happen). Pascal’s wager is yet another example of this kind of reasoning.

Bare theism, though, is a very vague proposition indeed, and just as there can probably be no real evidence for or against theism-as-such, it’s not clear that theism-as-such has any particular consequences, either. Specific religions have specific consequences and can thus be judged as expedient or inexpedient belief systems, but I confess to being at a loss to think of any specific practical consequences of “mere theism.” Rather than passing judgment on theism first and only afterwards (should the judgment be positive) considering which brand of theism is the best, perhaps it makes more sense to consider specific religions right from the start.

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2. The pathology of sub-replacement fertility

One of the negative consequences of atheism is “sub-replacement fertility under modern conditions (where there is access to a range of fertility regulating technologies).” This is objectively pathological, and seriously so. Dr. Charlton admits that most religions also lead to sub-replacement fertility; however, there are a few religious exceptions to this rule (e.g., Mormons, Orthodox Jews) but no known non-religious exceptions. (Some individual atheists may be exceptions, of course, but no predominantly secular society is.)

Well, the fact that atheists and the vast majority of theists suffer from this pathology is a strong indication that belief in God is not the determining factor. That every member of this tiny group of élite cultures — those which reproduce themselves under modern conditions — should be theistic is hardly a surprise, since virtually all cultures are theistic. To understand the secret of their immunity to the otherwise universal plague of Malignant Modernity, we should be looking at what they have in common which makes them different from other cultures — not at the near cultural universal of theism.

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When I look at the modern pathology of voluntary infertility — and, as Dr. Charlton says, it is very definitely a pathology and a serious one — I see a pathology of motives, not beliefs. It’s not that our fundamental motives have changed, but that our technology has changed the world in such a way that the old, one-serviceable motives are no longer productive of fitness. (See my discussion of this in The Genie scenario.)

Consider the situation with food: We still have the same old food-motives as before — a desire for sugar and fat and salt and so on — but those motives, which once kept us alive, are now fitness-reducing in a world where technology has made these things too readily available, and in refined form.

A similar pathology of outdated motives seems to be in play vis-à-vis reproduction. Most people do have a natural desire to have children — but compared to our other natural desires, it’s not a very strong one. Other desires — for sex, status, comfort, security, pleasure — are much stronger and more immediate, and when they are pitted against the desire for children, the latter tends to lose out. In pre-modern times, those stronger desires tended naturally to lead people to have children — either as side-effect of pursuing sex, or as means of acquiring wealth, status, and security. Under modern conditions, these indirect inducements to reproduction no longer work properly. It is quite easy to have plenty of sex without ever having children, and children tend to be a net negative in economic terms. As for security, the modern welfare state makes it unnecessary to have children to provide for one in one’s old age; and easy divorce means that women cannot feel secure without a “career” — which generally entails a ridiculously protracted period of education, with predictable consequences for fertility. Without the assistance of these ancillary motives, modern people are inadequately motivated to reproduce.

In all of this there is no indication that people’s incorrect beliefs (about the existence of God or about anything else) are at the root of the pathology — just as the obesity epidemic probably cannot be attributed to incorrect beliefs about nutrition. In both cases, once-effective motives are wreaking havoc in an environment which no longer resembles the one in which they evolved.

Certain beliefs may turn out to be effective antidotes to these motivational pathologies — but these need not (indeed, probably will not be) factually correct beliefs. Wrong beliefs can be tailored to fit wrong motives so as to produce the desired result — throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch, as it were. To use a hypothetical example, a firm belief that eating refined grains results in eternal damnation would probably lead to better health consequences than true beliefs (coupled with woefully inadequate motives) would. Those few religions which succeed in motivating their adherents to choose above-replacement fertility may be not-so-hypothetical examples of the same thing.

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3. Justifying norms

Another consequence of atheism is that laws and other norms have nothing to back them up. They are either confessedly arbitrary — enforced by bare, unjustified power — or else they are justified by utilitarian criteria (maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain “overall”). However, there is no intelligible calculus for summing up individual pains and pleasures and deriving the overall hedonic value of any particular state of affairs, so in practice utilitarianism is used as a post hoc justification for whatever those in power find expedient.

Yes, but the “will of God” is no more provable than the “greatest good for the greatest number,” and both of these principles have been used to justify all sorts of different norms — including ones which strike most people as grotesquely evil.

In theory, theists humble submit to the will of God. In practice, they simply assume that God agrees with their own conscience, or their own culture’s norms, or whatever happens to be expedient at the moment — which is pretty much the same thing that utilitarians do. (See my old post Arrogance and humility, which was also written in response to Dr. Charlton.)

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4. Objective meaning and purpose

Under atheism, there is no objective purpose or meaning of life. Atheists respond that they can create their own meaning and purpose. However, if this is true, it means no particular meaning or purpose can be objectively right or wrong. This implies either solipsism or nihilism — but nihilism is self-contradictory “because it is a non-arbitrary metaphysical belief which claims that beliefs are arbitrary.”

Actually, this form of nihilism is not technically self-contradictory. It states merely that all “meanings” and “purposes” — not all beliefs — are arbitrary. But that’s of little importance; I think most people will agree that solipsism and (any form of) nihilism are things to be avoided, and that atheism has serious problems if it entails either of the two.

However, it’s not clear to me how theism saves us from this species of nihilism. Various intelligent beings have various goals and purposes, and if God exists then he has goals and purposes as well — but why should God’s purposes be considered the purposes, inherently valid in a way that others are not? Is it because he is so powerful? (Might makes right?) Or because he is good and wise? (See the Euthyphro dilemma.) Or because he created us? (But if we had been created by a mad scientist instead, would his mad purposes therefore be automatically and uniquely valid?)

In fact, non-theistic Darwinism also proposes that there is an objective “purpose of life” — namely, to maximize our inclusive fitness, i.e., to keep copies of our genes in existence for as long as possible — but that is obviously an inadequate reason for any human to accept that as his own purpose in life. Theists accept the purposes attributed to God, not because they are the purposes for which life was created and as such necessarily valid, but because they are purposes which humans already find attractive for other reasons. Whatever “objectivity” those purposes may have is derived from their status as human psychological universals, a status which is unaffected by the existence or nonexistence of God.

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Montaigne on virtue

I want to comment on a couple of quotes from Montaigne, both from his essay “On Vanity” (Essays III:9, M. A. Screech translation). Here’s the first one.

Human wisdom has never managed to live up to the duties which it has prescribed for itself; and if it had done so, it would have prescribed itself more, further beyond them still, towards which is could continue to strive and aspire, so hostile is our condition to immobility. Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault.

I thought this was a thought-provoking take on the idea of the inevitability of human sinfulness.

The usual idea is that the moral law is what it is, and that human behavior is defined as sinful because it falls short of that law. The moral law is absolutely moral — that is, moral in and of itself, without reference or comparison to anything else — because God wills that morality be thus defined. Actual human behavior is only relatively immoral — that is, it can be judged moral only with reference to absolute standard of the moral law, of which it falls woefully short.

In Montaigne’s intriguing reversal, it is actual human behavior which serves as the absolute point of reference. Human behavior is absolutely immoral — immoral in and of itself, without reference to a moral law or any other external standard — because man wills that immorality be thus defined. (“Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault.”) Human behavior is of course a moving point of reference, continually in flux, but it is no less absolute for that. (Absolute does not mean eternal and unchanging; it means non-relative, i.e., not defined in relation to or comparison with something else.) Actual human behavior, whatever it may happen to be, is to be considered immoral by definition — and morality is defined as whatever exceeds that.

Man’s quest to be moral could be compared to an athlete’s quest to break the world record. There’s no absolute standard, no such thing as “perfect” — only an absolute conviction that the current record, whatever it may happen to be, is inadequate and must be surpassed. And when it is surpassed and a new record set, that, too will be inadequate and in need of surpassing — by definition. The dog can never catch the car.

As dark and nihilistic a view of morality as that may seem to be, I think it captures something true about human psychology. Man loves progress and hates perfection. When there are no more worlds to conquer — that is, when his every goal has been reached and his every dream realized — he weeps. He literally cannot be satisfied with himself, because satisfaction is as such unsatisfactory to him. Satisfaction is bestial, ox-like, subhuman — not because as it happens things are not satisfactory and thus we ought not to be satisfied, but because satisfaction — with any conceivable state of affairs — is intrinsically base, attainable only by condescending to the subhuman level of the Nietzschean “Last Man.”

Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Mill presumably thought it went without saying that being Socrates satisfied would be the best state of affairs — but he may have unwittingly been laying out the only two choices there are.

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Later in the same essay, Montaigne writes:

Anyone who, in an ailing time like ours, boasts that he can bring a naïve and pure virtue to the world’s service either has no idea what virtue is, since our opinions are corrupted along with our morals — indeed, just listen to them describing it; listen to most of them vaunting of their deeds and formulating their rules: instead of describing virtue they are describing pure injustice and vice, and they present it, thus falsified, in the education of princes — or else, if he does have some notion of it, he boasts wrongfully and, say what he will, does hundreds of things for which his conscience condemns him. . . . In such straits the most honourable mark of goodness consists in freely acknowledging your defects and those of others, while using your powers to resist and retard the slide towards evil, having to be dragged down that slope, while hoping for improvement and desiring improvement.

This reminds me of the advice Bruce Charlton is always giving about living in the modern world. (I can’t seem to find a specific post to link to, so you’ll have to be content with a passim.) We can’t fix the world, can’t drain the moral swamp we find ourselves in. You can’t even hope to stay personally clean in this dirty water we’ve been given to swim in. You can only do two things. First, keep your standards even as you are forced to break them. Sin if you must, but never cease to call it sin. Resist the pressure to call evil good and good evil. No matter how goddamn long you’ve been down, you can’t ever let it look like up to you. And second, drag your feet as much as possible. If you can’t resist actively, resist passively. If you can’t do that, do nothing. If you must serve evil, serve it incompetently. Do not go gentle into that good night.

(Dr. Charlton draws heavily on Pascal, who in turn drew heavily on Montaigne, so the similarity may be more than a coincidence. I don’t particularly remember anything on this theme in the Pensées, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.)

Combining this with the first quote, though, leads one to wonder whether Montaigne’s times — or our own — were really all that uniquely bad. (“Clear your mind of cant,” says Dr. Johnson. “You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times.”) If Montaigne had lived in ancient Rome, or Dr. Charlton in Byzantium, would they really have written any differently about the world and how to live in it? Perhaps there is at least some truth to the idea that these times are “ailing times” by definition — that the moral swamp can’t be drained because the current moral atmosphere is always, by definition, a swamp — that man commands the world, no less than himself, to be necessarily at fault.

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Free will and the limits of reason

When we say that a person has free will, we generally mean that he chooses his own actions and that, for every choice he makes, he could have chosen otherwise.

That “could have” is a little slippery. Usually we mean it in a counterfactual sense. When a falling stone just misses my head and I say that it could have hit me, I am not claiming that the motion of the stone was not deterministic; I mean simply that it would have hit me if conditions (my location, the direction of the wind, etc.) had been slightly different. When we say that a person could have chosen otherwise, it could likewise be interpreted to mean that would have chosen differently if certain conditions (such as his character, motives, or mood) had been slightly different — but proponents of free will generally mean something much stronger: that exactly the same person in exactly the same situation and the same mental state could have chosen otherwise — that precisely the same set of causes could just as easily have resulted in a different effect. The actions of a person who has free will are supposed to be impossible to predict even in principle, even by a psychic Laplace’s demon with complete information about the person’s character and mental state. But — and this is where the contradiction comes in — the actions are still seen as being decided by the person.

Basically, the claim that I have free will boils down to an assertion that both of the following propositions are true:

  1. I determine my actions.
  2. My actions are not determined.

Thus, the claim that I have free will is logically false. Free will is not just something which we happen not to have because the universe is deterministic; it is something fundamentally incoherent, which could not possibly exist in any conceivable universe.

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When I made a similar argument in my post Free will: a problem for everyone, Bruce Charlton left the following comment:

Reason reasons-about only that which follows reason. Therefore if there was anything which did not follow reason, such a phenomenon would necessarily be invisible to reason.

So, the argument you make excludes the possibility of free will, from the initial assumptions. . . . reasoning excludes free will a priori – reason does not disprove free will.

Dr. Charlton goes on to compare reason’s exclusion of free will to the way science excludes miracles and the supernatural — not because it can disprove them, but precisely because it cannot disprove them, because they are deemed untestable and thus outside the domain of science.

Like science, reason supports some things, disproves others, and excludes still others from its domain. Simple propositions, for example, are excluded. Reason can’t tell you whether all men or mortal or whether Socrates is a man; it can only tell you that if those two propositions are true then it follows that Socrates is mortal. All our first principles and empirical facts come from outside reason and cannot be disproved by reason. What reason can disprove is a related set of propositions, and it does this by showing that the set is self-contradictory — but this is precisely what reason does with regard to free will, as I have shown above. If reducing something to a contradiction doesn’t count as disproving it, it’s hard to imagine what would qualify.

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So, given that reason disproves free will, is there any respectable way to go on believing in free will anyway? Usually when you run into a contradiction, you can question the premises, but in this case the only two premises are part of the definition of free will; to reject either or both of the premises is to reject free will. (You can still use the term “free will” for whatever is left — that’s what most philosophers do — but you’d still be rejecting free will in the sense that most non-philosophers intuitively understand and believe in it.)

Since ditching the premises is out, the next option is to remember that deductive reason is infallible only in theory. Not everything that is logically true is obvious (that’s why math tests are hard), and an argument which looks airtight could still be fallacious in ways that escape our notice. Most people justifiably reject Zeno’s proof that motion is impossible even if they can’t find any logical flaw in his reasoning; the overwhelming empirical evidence that fleet-footed warriors can in fact catch tortoises overrides the claims of reason. In a similar way, and on similar empirical grounds, most scientists continue to treat both relativity and quantum theory as true even though they are known to be logically incompatible.

So, if there were strong empirical evidence that we do in fact have free will, it would be reasonable to dismiss the above disproof of it as a curious paradox which, like Zeno’s, must somehow be wrong even if we can’t understand how — if there were evidence. But in fact the only evidence we have for free will is summed up well by Spinoza (Ethics II, Prop. 35, Schol.):

Men are deceived in that they think themselves free, i.e., they think that, of their own free will, they can either do a thing or forbear doing it, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. This, then, is their idea of freedom — that they do not know any cause of their actions.

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What is eternal?

In a recent post entitled “Everything matters or nothing matters: Original sin versus nihilism,” Bruce Charlton (whose blog has grown tremendously more interesting these days; I really can’t recommend it highly enough) makes the case that any coherent view of the world must fall under one of the two headings given in the post title.

The concept of “mattering” is a slippery one which I won’t even attempt to engage directly here, but I think I can say with some confidence that two of the necessary conditions for anything really mattering are (1) permanence and (2) consciousness. Whatever is fundamentally temporary, neither eternal in itself nor exerting any eternal influence on the cosmos, is nothing but a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t illusion and cannot possibly matter. In the same way, nothing can possibly matter unless it matters to someone; in a world without consciousness — or with only temporary consciousness — nothing can possibly matter. These two conditions may not turn out to be sufficient, of course, but they at least give us somewhere to start. In this post I want to look at four possible answers to the question “What is eternal?”

1. Nothing

One possibility is that, as Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh, “there is no permanence” — that not even the universe itself is eternal, that everything will eventually come to an end and be as if it had never existed. Obviously, nothing could possibly matter in such a universe; nihilism would be inescapable, though I suppose we could console ourselves with the thought that, after all, it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

2. Stuff

As Dr. Charlton puts it in a comment on the post linked above:

Of course an atheist can believe that everything is eternal, in the sense that stuff is eternal (like the steady state theory of cosmology). And most pagans also believe this – that the universe always has been always will be.

But in that world view nothing matters.

In such a world, there would be permanence but no permanent consciousness, so it would still be impossible for anything to really matter. This would, I think, be largely true even if the presence of non-permanent conscious minds were a permanent feature of the universe — that is, if the universe were such that it generated an endless succession of consciousnesses, no one of which was permanent. Did your tenth-great grandfather have a good life? Does anyone know or care anymore? Does it matter? If the line of his infinitely-great grandchildren continues for all eternity, will it matter then? The only way such a scenario could be consistent with mattering would be if each in the infinite series of transient minds cared about the same things — mind you, not corresponding things (I care about my happiness, you care about yours), but the very same things. And this they manifestly do not.

3. Souls

A world populated by deathless consciousnesses — immortal human souls and/or God — is the “everything matters” scenario Dr. Charlton has in mind. In this universe, “nothing is forgotten, we are never alone, souls are eternal, reality is endless, awareness is total.”

Would everything really matter in such a world, though? An eternal soul need not have eternal concerns, after all. Most of the things that “mattered” to me as a toddler, even as a teenager, later turned out not to have mattered at all. If my soul still exists a billion billion billion years in the future, will there be anything at all about my current life about which it will be able to look back and say, “This mattered. It matters still”? Will that soul even still be “me” in any interesting sense? Personal immortality isn’t actually so different from the endless succession of consciousnesses considered above.

God, to the extent that his course is one eternal round, would be an exception. If he exists and is the same yesterday, today and forever — if the same things have always mattered and will always matter to him — then then it is possible for everything to matter. (Of course, the very characteristic which makes God’s concerns permanent — the impossibility of anything changing or affecting him in any way — leads one to wonder what could possibly matter to him one way or the other, but I digress.)

4. Even this spider and this moonlight between the trees

The allusion is to Nietzsche’s Gay Science and the hypothesis of the eternal recurrence of the same events — not history repeating itself in some general sense, but the exact same sequence of events playing out again and again infinitely many times. If true, it means that everything has an infinite (if non-contiguous) duration — not just changeable abstractions like “the soul”, but every event, every moment, every feeling, every single component of existence. Dr. Charlton considers eternal recurrence a “nothing matters” scenario, but I’m inclined to think quite the opposite. At least it fulfills the minimal necessary conditions (permanence and consciousness) which we’re considering here.

Dr. Charlton is also of the opinion that no one has ever actually believed in eternal recurrence, least of all Nietzsche himself. This is probably correct. Nietzsche did take the idea very seriously, though, and referred to it in The Will to Power as  “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses.” According to Nietzsche, if (1) time is infinite and (2) space is finite, eternal recurrence necessarily follows. Actually, a third assumption (not recognized by Nietzsche) is also necessary: (3) that space is in some sense “digital” — that is, that there are only a finite number of positions any given particle could possibly occupy; otherwise, matter would still be able to form infinitely many non-repeating configurations even in a finite space (Georg Simmel proved this). I don’t believe in eternal recurrence myself, since I don’t think those three prerequisites are especially likely to be true, but it’s certainly possible. Physicists may yet discover that we live in such a world.

What I do believe in is eternalism — block time, McTaggart’s C-series, temporal antisolipsism. Time is just another dimension, all points in time are equally and permanently real, and the idea that time “passes” is an illusion. I reached this conclusion on my own, only to discover later that it is implied by Einsteinian physics (due to the relativity of simultaneity) and that McTaggart had also argued for it. Like Nietzschean eternal recurrence, eternalism means that everything is eternal and allows for the possibility that everything matters.

In fact, since eternalism’s implications are so similar to those of eternal recurrence, and since the latter is easier to visualize, I find Nietzsche’s hypothesis to be a useful mental hack, a tool I can use to keep myself looking at things sub specie aeternitatis. “You will live through this again and again and again, infinitely many times,” I tell myself from time to time — knowing that this is (probably) not literally true, but that what follows from it is the same as what follows from the truth. Since I am an antisolipsist in the more literal sense as well, I sometimes expand my memento aeternitatis to “You will live through this infinitely many times — as yourself, and as your wife, and as your neighbor, and as that cat over there, and as the cockroach you just killed,” and so on.

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