I wanted to re-take the convert_me challenge now that I have grown, and thought, and pressed my beliefs into a more fixed shape. But, I can no longer specify myself with a bunch of pure labels as I see some other people doing, so I suppose I'll have to try to be clear in an exposition. But, clarity? Anyone who's seen my comments should rightly expect this post to be a train-wreck. Still, you'll see that I have a moral commitment to fail gloriously, and so here I go.
We've got to start somewhere; and religion starts, for me, as the practices and teachings that follow from a certain set of commitments -- some moral, some mythological, some otherwise philosophical: so I'll have to outline several such commitments, and show how they build up into the rest of my religion -- if it's well to call it that.
To give you a rough background of my history, I grew up in the North-eastern U.S. and now live in the Netherlands; I was raised as a non-strict Catholic which emerged into a Christian fundamentalist view in high school, which faded away into areligiousness and atheism in college (albeit an atheism tinged with weird influences, like Objectivism, Islam, and Scientology). Somewhere in that process, I became a member of (and then a moderator for) convert_me, and so if you look in the community archives under 2005, 2006 or so, you'll see some old material of that nature under the user name kentox. I'm now working on a Master's degree in Applied Physics at the TU Delft. This entire post testifies to the stuff I will do to avoid studying for exams.
How We Fit
I see an antagonism between the world of elementary particles that I study on the one hand (what Searle described as "mindless, meaningless particles moving around in fields of force"), and the world of thoughts and ideas which I see in my own mind. So, it's natural for me to ask: what are we, and how do we fit into the universe?
My answer is that there's a class of phenomena which are change-based -- things like candle flames and waterfalls, where a continual process of change produces something which "looks like" an object; but it's artificial to categorise it as such. It seems clear to me -- just by introspection -- that my conscious activity is also change-based; and so I consider my conscious self as one of these phenomena. (I am not saying that flames and waterfalls are conscious; just that conscious things are in this other group, distinct from electrons and rocks -- at least, rocks on short time-scales.) So, to identify something as conscious is to identify it as changing in a particular way that causes (via physics) things like subjective experience.
By anchoring consciousness in change, I am negating dualisms in particular (which, to be brief, hold that there is a soul made up of consciousness-stuff which somehow connects to the body made up of matter-stuff). How I fit among the monisms is a trickier question, because I haven't identified whether change or matter is primary; only that the two go hand-in-hand and that change is a generalisation of consciousness.
In this observation, I see the meaning of life; that is, I see our role in the universe as "to change": more precisely, to change ourselves and our forthcoming history of conscious beings into whatever is good, beautiful, or aesthetic; our role is to change for the better. (Why should we better ourselves rather than worsen ourselves? Well, because it's better to better ourselves rather than to worsen ourselves. I'm not making a new deep point here; just the old one restated over again.)
I am carefully restraining myself from an overview of my thoughts on time and will; but I should mention that I believe that free will is something which we really have and that I don't think that the future is set in stone.
The strongest anchor to change my entire world-view is to provide me some persuasive alternative to this picture of how we fit into the universe. For example, if you could convince me of an "immortal soul," then I think that this would reverberate across the entire religion. However, I can't say what it would take to really convince me of the latter, mostly because it seems so utterly implausible to me. But many people seem to believe it; and if you've got a persuasive case that it's correct, I'd love to hear it.
Before we jump into the question "what is aesthetic?" and such, I should probably treat the question, "what is aesthetic?"
To be brief, I think that moral issues are relatively objective: there are really right things to do, and really wrong things to do; one can be truly wrong about their course of action, and so forth. I think we perceive morality, in a similar sense to how we perceive the spaces we live in. I wrote this analogy with vision to try to explain my thoughts to fanha; I hope that you read it before you engage me on this topic. For example, you might say, "evolution explains why humans think murder is immoral!" But when I hear that, I think to myself, "evolution explains why humans can hear mosquitos!" -- and this makes me immediately think, "okay, but what does this have to do with the fact that I can hear an objective external world? Apparently, very little." And the analogy propagates backward to the statement I heard: "Sure it does. But it's still immoral. Your statement doesn't change that."
I don't think I can be converted on this point alone, though I welcome you to try. The analogy seems so strong to me that I think that, if you did convince me that no actions are really right or wrong, you would in the process shake my faith in an objective world that I see and feel in general. Call it a reduction to a much harder problem.
Okay, so let's move from "What sort of a thing is betterness?" to "What sorts of things are better?" How do we know the better from the worse? I believe that our intuitions provide us with a moral faculty, but that all of our faculties can sometimes be in error. Being change-oriented creatures, our interaction with the world forms a significant way to figure out whether our intuitions are deceiving us or not -- so, when you see, e.g., the rotating snakes illusion, what's really happening is that the snakes look like they're moving but don't interact that way. (In particular, when you focus on any particular segment of the snakes, you find that that segment is standing perfectly still; and when you focus your eyes at infinity, all of the apparent motion ceases.) So, we practice our moralities and see when our moral sense presents us with paradoxes, or with disagreements from the moral senses of those around us. (The latter is rather like colorblindness, in the morality/vision analogy.)
To facilitate this, I've looked carefully at what moral commitments I seem to practice in my everyday life, and I've whittled it down to a set of five, so far. My five commitments each have a one-word summary which, I will admit beforehand, is misleading. But they help to remember the scheme as a whole; if I remember, "My moral commitments are love, honesty, charity, humility, and ambition," I can reconstruct the nuances directly from that. They are all self-commitments in some sense or another: where I have failed these commitments, I have failed that which is Good, and therefore I have failed myself.
(1) Love. I will love life; I will make my life into something that I can love.
(2) Honesty. I will view the world honestly, and try to see it as clearly as I can.
(3) Charity. I will try to make the world better, by listening to others and offering to help.
(4) Humility. I will avoid elevating myself above those around me.
(5) Ambition. I would rather fail gloriously than not try for fear of failure.
It's very important to notice that most of my other-relations: sympathy, loving human beings, telling the truth, et cetera, are all bound up in this "charity" commitment and not in the commitment of love and honesty directly. The commitment to honesty does say something about lies, but it's a rather peculiar thing: "Don't weave a set of lies so complicated that you have trouble untangling the truth from it later." Whether you should lie to someone else is instead governed mostly by the charity principle: does it make the world a better place -- or does it make their lives better -- if you lie to them? Keeping someone in the dark about a surprise birthday party that you're throwing about them might easily involve lying to them for the greater good. On the other hand, lying to your significant other to cover up an affair may make the world a worse place -- as well as having that affair in the first place.
This scheme does not say what to do when these commitments come into conflict. I don't think firm rules can be provided. I just see this as a guide for someone to say, "my intuitions say X, and that is in line with the five commitments, so my intuitions are probably being reliable." It's possible to convert me in some sense or another by changing the items on this list -- insisting that you have an intuition against humility for this reason or that reason, for example, might be rewarded by a "yeah, I never thought about it that way -- what if we add such-and-so to the list?"
Now I hope that this section title shocks some people, because I feel not only that this is where this topic belongs, but that it is also a rather peculiar place for the topic -- bringing it up after our place in the universe and our moral commitments. It strikes me that the normal impression of theism brings one to assume that the belief in God should start both of those alternate topics. Nonetheless, let me explain what I'm denying before I deny it.
I take theism to be the idea that it is somehow technically or literally or factually correct to humanise or personify one or more entities or processes that occur (or have occurred) at a universal scale: e.g. the processes by which "nothing came to an end" and the universe began, or the processes by which one's bad deeds come back to haunt them, and so forth. I admit that this definition is still a little bit technically inadequate; but we can get to problems with it when you guys bring them up.
I freely confess that I am reacting specifically to Christian theism, where a being-beyond-being called "God" literally becomes a human and walks around Palestine for a little while, and where it is considered technically correct to consider this deity triply personified in its universal roles. However, as I understand them, I'm also reacting on a broader level to mainline Hinduism and Islam. Now, each of these three have non-personification histories (Apophaticism, Charvaka, and some Sufisms respectively come to mind), and I don't mean to ignore those. I just want to be very clear that when I'm talking about a god, the history of gods as supernatural people is something which I find myself unable to throw away: I find it hard to say, "I believe in a God, but He is really more like a Divine Clockwork than a Loving Creator." I find it hard to call the former a "god" anymore, because in my book, the notion of a "god" is something beyond your everyday wall-clock.
With that said, why reject the Loving Creator -- the conscious being? Well, I already covered to some extent what it means to be conscious: one has to be a changing being, and one has to change in a particular set of ways. Not only is God often seen as beyond change, which puts Him beyond consciousness to start with; but I just don't see consciousness writ large in the universe -- and my commitment to Honesty comes in, forcing me to go with that. I've seen the principles of physical chemistry and quantum mechanics and electrodynamics and general relativity: they don't cry out to me as being willful or consciously-directed. They give rise to conscious activity somehow, sure; but it doesn't seem factually correct to personify them.
It's not just that though: it's also an issue of Humility. This scheme of gods throughout history seems to me like a transparent projection of the Self onto the Universe by a feat of analogy -- a raising of the Self beyond its own boundaries. Like it or not, we understand consciousness by thinking about our own conscious life: so the theist, as I've defined it, is stuck using the Universe as a mirror to look back upon themselves. And I just don't feel that I can bring myself to do that. I can't look at the beautiful night sky and see my own face painted amongst the stars.
Now, remember, my commitment to Honesty says nothing against lies themselves: so I have no problem with, for example, Hindu art, even though it's very common to see divine anthropomorphism there. And I love the poetry of Hopkins, and I pray sometimes. But I must be clear that I don't aim my prayers at soliciting a divine intercession. (I had a wonderful opportunity to talk with two evangelists at the TU Delft in the Netherlands; and they insisted that divine intercession was a valid point of prayer. As testimony, one of them described to me how his bike was lost for some reason or another; and he prayed to God -- causing a bike to appear on his doorstep soon after. He said he described this to a friend, who did the same prayer to a similar result. Apparently, sometimes the service of prayer is not deliverance, but rather delivery.)
And I also have no problem with a First Cause, or a repository for the Aesthetic, or any of several other definitions that have been used by theologians to glorify the belief in "God." But to me, gods are personal gods.
This is probably the wrong avenue for converting me, but if you could convince me to somehow overcome my two hurdles, I could quite possibly be convinced to believe in a personal God. But they are relatively vast: and where one is emotional, the other is factual.
As you might have read in my history above, I've been in some rather esoteric and "irrational" places, even as I've studied physics and philosophy -- which always seem relatively solid by comparison. This is, in part, my historical desire to see more, to indulge myself, to see the world as honestly as possible and to seek a life that I love. I would like to request that, if you have any ideas which you think could be added to this scheme, you tell me about them.
I don't think that it will be easy to convert me on these issues, but I desire that you try. Come on: convert me!