Saturday, May 25, 2019

An open letter to Christian supporters of Donald Trump

Dear Christian supporters of Donald Trump:

I occasionally hear some of you complain that we west-coast liberals don't take you seriously.  Well, if you want me to take you seriously, then one of you is going to have to explain to me how this is not bearing false witness against your neighbor:
U.S. President Donald Trump, engaged in personal attacks on House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, retweeted a heavily edited video that falsely claimed the Democratic leader had difficulty speaking to reporters.
And, while I'm at it, maybe one of you would be good enough to explain to me how you square your support for Trump with Matthew 19:24?  Are there some really tiny camels out there (or some really big needles) that I don't know about?

Seriously, I want to understand you and reach a place of mutual respect.  But you sure aren't making it easy for me.


Saturday, May 18, 2019

If a fetus is a person...

Carliss Chatman raises some very interesting questions about the logical consequences of fetal personhood. To which I would like to add: if life begins at conception, and hence an embryo is a person, can I adopt a frozen embryo and write them off as a dependent on my taxes?  No, seriously, I want to know.  This could be very lucrative.

The mother of all buyer's remorse

[Part of an ongoing series of exchanges with Jimmy Weiss.]

Jimmy Weiss responded to my post on teleology and why I reject Jimmy's wager (not to be confused with Pascal's wager) nearly a month ago.  I apologize to Jimmy and anyone who has been waiting with bated breath for my response (yeah, right) for the long delay.  Somehow, life keeps happening while I'm not paying attention.

So, finally, to the task at hand.  Jimmy writes:
Ron presents the right kind of argument here.  He argues that an infinite reward is impossible, because, in his words, “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Ron “can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.” 
There is an important sense in which I quite agree with Ron’s statement here.  I absolutely agree that “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Human beings are, in the core of our nature: ignorant, proud, lazy, fearful, and restless.
I'm happy to hear that I'm presenting "the right kind of argument" and that we've found a bit of common ground.  That is my overarching goal in this effort, and for an atheist to find any common ground with a YEC is something I would have given you long odds against not so long ago.  (For those of you following this exchange, I think it's worth noting the fact that the age of the earth has not entered into the discussion at all.  I think that's salient.)

I have only a minor quibble with Jimmy's characterization of the situation: yes, humans are ignorant, proud, lazy (at least I am) fearful, and restless.  But I would not say that these things are in the core of our nature.  What is at the core of our nature is that we are living things.  Like all living things, we were born, and we will die, and yes that kind of sucks, but that's the way it is.  Would I like to live longer that I likely will?  Yeah, probably.  Would I like to live forever?  No.  Absolutely not.
Ron’s argument for the impossibility of the infinitude of God’s reward depends on the fixity of our nature.  But as far as I can see, there is no reason to assume fixity concerning those aspects of our nature that impede our ability to perceive, pursue, and enjoy goodness.
My argument against the desirability of immortality doesn't demand that our nature remain fixed.  I'm a very different person today than I was 10, 20, 30... years ago.  But I do think it's important that heaven not require us to change so much that we cease to be human, and the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that that is exactly what it does require.  I don't see any way that we could be immortal and still be human.  Mortality is an essential part of being human, indeed an essential part of being alive at all.

More than that, I want to argue here that being imperfect is an essential part of being human.  Consider the first adjective that Jimmy chose to characterize us: ignorant.  I imagine he intended it to be pejorative, and of course he's right.  Ignorance is not generally a good thing.  We should not seek to be ignorant, nor should we seek to remain ignorant.  The quest for knowledge is a noble one, one might even say that this quest is a core aspect of our nature.

But imagine what it would be like if we were to actually succeed in our quest not to be ignorant.  Ignorance means to lack knowledge, so by definition, to be not ignorant is to not lack any knowledge.  It is to be omniscient, to know everything.  In that respect we would become like God.

Would that be a good thing?  I don't know, but I do know this: if it were to happen, we would lose an essential aspect of our humanity because there would no longer be any point in engaging in our quest for knowledge.  If we succeed in totally eradicating ignorance, there would no longer be any point in reading a book; everyone would already know the contents of all possible books.  The value of reading a book is entirely dependent on ignorance of its contents.  If you are not ignorant of the contents of a book that means that you already know its contents.  You have memorized it word-for-word.  If you haven't, if there is any lack of knowledge about the contents of the book for which you have to actually go back and refer to the book itself, then you are still ignorant, at least of that aspect of the book's contents.

So a non-ignorant being cannot read a book.  A non-ignorant being cannot engage in a conversation with another non-ignorant being because both of them would already know what the other was going to say.  The whole point of reading books and engaging in conversations is to communicate information and that presupposes that the information is lacking somewhere.  Ignorance is necessary if communication is to have any point at all.

Let's consider Jimmy's next two adjective: "proud" and "lazy".  Again, I'm pretty sure he intended these to be pejorative.  But I am lazy, and I am proud of being lazy.  My laziness has been a powerful motivator for me to find more effective ways of accomplishing goals so that I don't have to work so hard to accomplish them.  I've built a highly successful career on that laziness, and I'm proud of that.  Is that bad?  I don't know.  What I do know is that both my laziness and my pride are essential components of who I am.  If you took those away, I wouldn't be me any more.

What about "fearful" and "restless"?  Well, I'm fearful on occasion.  For example, I'm fearful that climate change will destroy civilization.  This fear motivates me to overcome my laziness and moves me to act.  Restless?  That also motivates me.  If I give in to my laziness and sit on my duff for too long then I become restless and feel the need to do something like write blog posts.

All of these things are essential parts of me.  If you took them away, I wouldn't be me any more.

But I like being me.  Becoming the person I am has taken 54 years of work, sometimes very hard and painful work, and I'm generally pretty happy with the result so far.  This is not to say that there isn't room for improvement.  I'm still a work-in-progress, but even that on-going project is an essential part of being the person I have become.  I would be very reluctant to give that up.

Even my mortality is an essential part of who I am.  Railing against death like Lear against the storm is part of being human.  If you think about it, taking the prospect of heaven seriously means that saving someone's life is not a noble act.  You aren't saving their life, you are delaying their entry into heaven!  (Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists actually take this seriously!)

Accepting that death is the end removes the moral ambiguity from saving someone's life (which, if you think about it, is actually an oxymoron.  You can't save someone's life, you can only extend it.)  And this, too, is an essential part of being human.

Being human is fundamentally about struggling because being alive is fundamentally about struggling.  The key to living a good life is not to seek and end the struggle, but to find the right balance so that the struggle doesn't break you but sustains you instead.

So... maybe heaven is an eternity of having just the right amount of struggling, just the right amount of ignorance, just the right amount of laziness and pride and restlessness?  Well, yeah, maybe.  But this doesn't sound to me like what's on offer in Christian heaven.  In Christian heaven, ignorance and pride and laziness and fear and restlessness are unalloyed evils and so are banished forever.  So it's not just that I would get bored after a few trillion years of bliss and then be screwed for all eternity.  I would have to give up some essential parts of my identity on day one.

I suppose a Christian would say: yes, you're exactly right, in order to enter heaven you do have to give up some parts of your identity, specifically, you have to let go of sin.  But to me, the things that I would have to let go of don't feel like sins, they just feel like imperfections.  I don't want to let those go because my ongoing struggle against my imperfections and those of my fellow man is what gets me up in the morning.  If those went away, I honestly don't know what I would do with myself.

So while I can understand the appeal of a promise of eternal bliss, especially for someone who has not been as incredibly fortunate as I have to find the right balance of struggle in their lives, it still feels to me like a bad deal even on its own terms.  And if I'm right and it is a bad deal, then it's worth figuring this out before you get to heaven because once you get there it's too late.  You're screwed.  There is no way out.  It's not like buying into a time-share where you can just write off the loss, learn the lesson, and get on with your life.  Once you get to heaven, that is your life.  Forever.

Be very careful what you wish for.  Especially if the offer is non-refundable.