Sunday, April 07, 2019

Secularity and teleology

1.  Introduction

In a previous post I advanced the hypothesis that the seemingly irreconcilable divide between religious and secular outlooks on life can be traced back to whether one chooses to begin one's philosophical inquiries with purpose or mechanism, i.e. whether one accepts teleology, the idea that our conscious experiences are indicative of some kind of purpose, as an axiom.  Jimmy Weiss responded to that (and also to some other points I raised) and here I want to respond to Jimmy.
I wonder if the reason Ron perceives an inordinate preoccupation with teleology among the faithful, is because he is accustomed to making so little of it?
I want to clarify that my hypothesis is emphatically not that the faithful have an "inordinate preoccupation" with teleology, only that they ask the question, "What is the purpose of subjective experience" before they ask the question "what is the mechanism behind subjective experience", whereas secular people reverse the order.  That's all.  The hypothesis is that both sides actually find answers to the respective question they started with, so that by the time they return to the other question they have already built up an intellectual framework into which the answer to the second question must fit.  So by the time a religious person returns to the question of mechanism they already know why they are here (or at least they think they do): God created them.  And any theory of mechanism that is inconsistent with that "fact" cannot possibly be true.  It would just make no sense.

Likewise, by the time a secular person returns to the question of purpose, they already know how their subjective experience works (or at least they think they do): subjective experience is an "emergent property" of brains, which were built by evolution.  Any theory of purpose that is inconsistent with that "fact" cannot possibly be true.  It would just make no sense.

And so the two sides are at loggerheads, and each side thinks the other side is populated by either morally rudderless heathens (in the case of the first group) or knuckle-dragging morons (in the case of the second).

It's just a hypothesis.  But it seems to fit the observed data.

If you're a secularist reading this, and you think this is a plausible hypothesis, then one of the practical consequences of this is that we could dramatically improve the effectiveness of our marketing if we had a better story to tell about teleology.  A lot of people yearn for purpose, and "life's a bitch and then you die, and that's just the way it is" is not a very attractive message.

2.  Why I reject Jimmy's wager

One of the interesting (to me) things about Jimmy Weiss's theology is that he is explicitly willing to admit that he could be wrong.  In our previous discussion on Reddit he put the odds at 5%, which is pretty substantial.  His argument for believing in God is not that God is a slam-dunk, but that it makes sense to believe in Him from a game-theoretical point of view: God promises an infinite reward in exchange for belief, and so if you crunch the "numbers" (I put numbers in scare quotes because infinity is not actually a number) it turns out that expected value of belief is infinite even if the odds of God actually existing are finite.

I think this argument is wrong on technical grounds, but one of the things I've learned is that geeking out about these things is very rarely effective.  Instead, the reason that Jimmy's wager doesn't work for me is that I believe that an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.  We are living creatures.  Being mortal is woven deep into the fabric of our being.  We're born, we mature, we have children, we raise them, and then we get out of the way and let them have their turn in the great circle of life.

The appeal of an infinite afterlife depends a lot, I think, on a failure to grasp just how big infinity is.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, infinity is big.  Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  I mean, you may think it's a long time waiting for Christmas morning to arrive, but that's just peanuts compared to infinity.  With infinite time you can read every book in the Library of Babel.  If you put an upper bound -- any upper bound -- on how long a book you're willing to read (100 million pages, say) you can read every one of those books an infinite number of times.  And if you spend even a little time browsing the Library of Babel you will see that reading most of those books is not going to be a lot of fun.

You can read every book, watch every movie, have every conversation that it is possible to have, see every sight, taste every taste, smell every smell, and do all of those things 100 millions times and still not put a dent in infinity.

I think I would be bored out of my mind after a mere trillion years.  I would yearn for oblivion.

So God's reward doesn't sound like a reward to me at all.  In fact, I can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.  This is not to say that I wouldn't like to live longer than I will.  Threescore and ten is a little shorter than I'd like.  But I'll take it over infinity.

3.  Towards a secular teleology

Here I'd like to address the second part of Jimmy's question, the "making so little of it" bit.  I don't make "so little" of it.  I want life to have a purpose.  But just because I'm not given a purpose by God doesn't mean I don't or can't have a purpose.  It's possible that I am given a purpose by nature, or it's possible that I can create my own purpose.  I think both of these are actually the case, and I think that idea-ism can serve as a basis not just for a secular morality but also for a secular teleology (for those who care about that sort of thing).  That could (and probably should) be its own post, but I'll just say this for now: I find it very fulfilling to learn about other people's ideas, and to come up with and promulgate ideas of my own (that's one of the reasons I write this blog).  But more than that, I think it's constructive.  I think it makes the world, at least in a small way, a better place.  If I write something that someone reads and enjoys, for whatever reason, then I've increased the net goodness in the world, and that makes me happy (that's why I like getting feedback).  There's also the chance that my words could outlive my body and give me a kind of immortality, one that won't actually turn into torture.

4.  Geeking out about the excluded middle

I don't quite understand why this is turning out to be such a big deal, but Jimmy keeps beating on the excluded middle so I feel the need to beat back, because I really do reject this:
Donald Trump either is, or he is not, a scoundrel.  One or the other must be true, if anything particular is meant by the word “scoundrel”.
The word "scoundrel" definitely has a meaning (it means "a dishonest or unscrupulous person") but that doesn't mean that the statement "X is a scoundrel" is either true or false.  Scoundrel-ness is a continuum, not a dichotomy (though Donald Trump seems to be to be a rather extreme outlier on the scoundrelly side of the scale, so perhaps that wasn't the best example).  But there are lots and lots of things like this where the truth or falseness of a statement doesn't turn on opinion or subjective experience, but rather on the lack of sharp dividing line (e.g. "A million dollars is a lot of money") or a counterfactual ("If the Russians had not meddled, Hillary would have won") or the lack of an objective referent ("Batman would beat Superman").

And, to give an example that I think falls afoul of more than one of these and is actually relevant to this discussion: "God is good."  Maybe I'll make that the topic of my next post.

Addendum

It is worth noting that, despite the fact that all of the above is part of an on-going discussion with a young-earth creationist, absolutely none of it had anything to do with the age of the earth.

13 comments:

Publius said...

Perhaps it's different

@Ron:
>In fact, I can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.

Perhaps you would find gazing upon the face of God more satisfying than you can comprehend.

Ron said...

@Publius:

> Perhaps you would find gazing upon the face of God more satisfying than you can comprehend.

That seems improbable. Exo 33:20. (Or was that Exo 33:11? I forget.)

Either way, it's going to take more than the say-so of someone who thinks that "truth is overrated" before I'm willing to wager eternity on it.

Publius said...

>That seems improbable. Exo 33:20.

Again making up unskilled religions.
If you’re in heaven:
1. You’re already dead
2. You have been purified and are without sin. You can therefore gaze upon God without harm.

>Either way, it's going to take more than the say-so of someone who thinks that "truth is overrated" before I'm willing to wager eternity on it.

You’re not wagering eternity, you’re wagering the rest of your mortal life. From that wager, you can gain eternal life. Or not. But the terms of the wager are pretty easy.

I don’t expect you to believe me. I figure you need God himself to tell you. Would that do it?

Truth is overrated. One day, you may understand the wisdom of this.

Ron said...

> If you’re in heaven: You’re already dead

No. You have *died* but that doesn't mean you're *dead*. You've been *reborn*. You are starting the after*life*.

> You have been purified and are without sin. You can therefore gaze upon God without harm.

Sez you.

> I don’t expect you to believe me.

Then why are you spending so much time on this? Seriously, I really want to know.

> I figure you need God himself to tell you. Would that do it?

I don't know. I think it would depend a great deal on what he had to say.

Ron said...

Oh, forgot an important point:

> You’re not wagering eternity

Of course I am. You're not paying attention. I'm saying that having eternal life sounds like a very unpleasant prospect to me. It might be fun for the first million years, or the first trillion, maybe even the first Graham's number of years. But I think that sooner or later the novelty will wear off. When that happens, you're screwed. Forever.

Publius said...

Ron's Anterior Cingulate Cortex

>> You have been purified and are without sin. You can therefore gaze upon God without harm.

@Ron:
>Sez you.

and:

>On the other hand, with regards to the question of whether or not God exists, the stakes couldn't be higher, so it's worth a lot of effort to get that one right. Hence, a lifetime of ongoing study.

Now this is telling. To to not know a href="https://tinyurl.com/y33zxuj8">fundamental teaching of Christianity means that your study of the subject has been shallow and cursory. You've probably read a few atheist books about bible verses, read Thomas Paine, and what atheists have to say about Christianity. Hence your focus on Old Testament Bible verses over New Testament ones.

Are you really performing a lifetime of ongoing study?
1. You consider the question of whether or not God exists to be one of high stakes, but reject William James justification of belief.
2. When presented with explanations of OT bible verses that are consistent with Christian faith -- say your favorite "baby eating" one -- you reject it.
3. When presented with studies by experts in ancient hebrew of the story of exodus, and how ancient hebrew usage differs from modern day, thus explaining the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, you reject it.
4. When presented with a way to obtain knowledge you don't have, you reject it.

It doesn't appear you're studying at all. You're just coming up with justification for your existing beliefs. After all, you'd expect that while studying, once in a while you'd learn something new and have to change your mind.


> I don’t expect you to believe me.

>Then why are you spending so much time on this? Seriously, I really want to know.

Naive realism and as a warning to others.

Plus I always learn something new when Luke shows up.

Publius said...

Can't lose what you don't have

> You’re not wagering eternity

>Of course I am. You're not paying attention. I'm saying that having eternal life sounds like a very unpleasant prospect to me. It might be fun for the first million years, or the first trillion, maybe even the first Graham's number of years. But I think that sooner or later the novelty will wear off. When that happens, you're screwed. Forever.

Isn't your daily mental experience that you will live forever?

Life after death either exists or it doesn't. How you live your life doesn't affect whether it exists, or not.

Two possibilities, then.

1. Life after death doesn't exists
You live as an atheist --> die --> nothing
You live as a Christian --> die --> nothing

2. Life after death exists
You live your life as an atheist --> die --> Hell
You live your life as a Christian --> die --> purgatory or Heaven


In Scenario 1 (no life after death), you don't suffer a loss by being a Christian. After you die, you don't exist, and entities that don't exist can't possess anything, and therefore cannot lose anything.

In Scenario 2 (life after death), how you live your life just affects your final destination in the afterlife.

Ron said...

> Are you really performing a lifetime of ongoing study?

Yes. Just because I haven't come to the same conclusions you have doesn't mean I haven't been studying.

> [You reject 1-3]

Yes, and I have explained why I reject them.

> 4. When presented with a way to obtain knowledge you don't have, you reject it.

I have no idea what you are referring to here.

> Isn't your daily mental experience that you will live forever?

No. I only experience the past, not the future.

> Life after death either exists or it doesn't.

Yes.

> How you live your life doesn't affect whether it exists, or not.

Sez you.

But you keep missing the point: even if life after death exists, if it lasts forever, I don't want it. I really don't. And neither will you after a few trillion years.

Jimmy Weiss said...

Hi Ron,

First, to clarify: I did not mean to imply that you have made little of teleology in general. Remember the context of that statement was in the way that naturalists interpret the appearance of design in nature. It appears to me that you have had to trivialize this particular manifestation of teleology, just as it may appear to you that religious people have overemphasized the appearance of design in nature.

With respect to your hypothesis to explain the divergence of beliefs:

Would you say that late-life conversions, in either direction, would falsify your hypothesis? If it were true, then it would seem that the vector-path of each individual's beliefs should be determined when they first begin to ask "why" questions, and then remain fixed based on whether they initially sought mechanistic or teleological explanations.

I could certainly get on board with a more general formulation, such as "teleological prioritization over mechanism is one of many metaphysical positions which can explain the divergence of beliefs about the real world and its origins." But, as stated, or as I have understood it, I don't think your hypothesis would stand up in real-world testing of the sort stated above.

Jimmy Weiss said...

RE: excluded middle

Yes, "scoundrel-ness" is a continuum. But again, what do you mean when you say "Donald Trump is a scoundrel?" Do you mean he is more of a scoundrel than most people? Well, either he is or he isn't, again, depending on how you define the point of reference. Or did you simply mean that he is sometimes dishonest or unscrupulous?" Well, either he is or he isn't.

This last case is a bit like the dichotomization of good and evil in theological contexts. If you say someone is a scoundrel, then that statement is true if you can find them anywhere along the spectrum of "scoundrel-ness", except for the extreme negative. A person who is never dishonest or unscrupulous is, be definition, not a scoundrel. Everyone else is. Yes, some scoundrels are more scoundrel-y than others, but that doesn't matter in the slightest if the test is the existence of one scoundrel-y act.

The only way you can say this statement is "neither true nor false" is if you didn't mean anything in particular by it. But that just means you are talking nonsense. And nonsense is never true, and always false.

Ron said...

@Jimmy:

> Would you say that late-life conversions, in either direction, would falsify your hypothesis?

Hm, that's a good point. There are other factors in play too. The single biggest predictor of what you will end up believing is what your parents believed. So the theory needs some revision, but I feel like it's on the right track. Yes, people do end up changing their beliefs, but it's not that common (you are a notable counter-example). So I think there's probably quite a bit of hysteresis at work (hence "get 'em while they're young") ;-)

> Do you mean he is more of a scoundrel than most people? Well, either he is or he isn't

No, that's not true. That assumes that scoundrel-ness can be quantified and at least partially ordered, and neither of those is true.

Here are a few more examples:

"The Constitution of the United States protects and individual's right to obtain an abortion."

"Julian Assange is a journalist."

"Superman is dead." (This is on my mind because I watched "Batman vs Superman" the other day, at the end of which (spoiler alert!) Superman dies.)

Ron said...

Oh, and if you want to geek out, the axiom of choice is another good example of a statement that is neither true nor false.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axiom_of_choice

Ron said...

Funny thing about the axiom of choice: you can, quite literally, just *choose* whether or not it is true (i.e. whether or not you accept it as an axiom) and either choice leads to perfectly sound mathematics. (Ironically, the "choice" in "axiom of choice" does *not* refer to the choice of whether or not to accept the axiom of choice!)

It just now occurred to me that the statement "Life has a purpose" is another statement of exactly this same sort: it is neither true nor false. You can just *choose*.