1. IntroductionIn 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 wagerOne 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 teleologyHere 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 middleI 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.
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.