Course Notes – Plato / Aristotle / Heinlein

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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I want to do something a little different in these Course Notes.  Rather than focus on a single text or issue, I’m going to talk about three interesting lines of conversation with students that developed in two of my courses, over the past two weeks: Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophical Ideas in Literature.

Plato – Evil as Ignorance and our Current Political Climate

The first text that students read in my Introduction to Philosophy course is Plato’s Meno, on which I did an entire installment of Course Notes, back in 2016.

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/09/08/course-notes-6/

Ostensibly, the Meno is about the etiology of virtue. Socrates punts at the end of the dialogue and maintains that it is a “gift of the gods,” which is interesting given the stand he takes in the Euthyphro.  But along the way, a number of topics are discussed, including the question of why people do bad things.  Meno suggests that it is because they want what’s bad, but Socrates complains that this idea is hard to make sense of.  Beyond the point that the good and the bad are commonly defined in terms of the desirable and the undesirable, there would seem to be a kind of motivational incoherence involved in desiring what one acknowledges to be bad.  Socrates argues that those who do bad, inevitably do so under the mistaken impression that it is good, which means that we should think of bad behavior as a product of the ignorance rather than the villainy of the actor.

Now, this view has received a number of substantial criticisms, not least from Aristotle, who observed that one can do what one knows full well is bad, as a result of weakness of will (akrasia).  But an interesting point that emerged in the classroom discussion had to do not with the problems with the Socratic approach, but with an argument for its adoption as a deliberate, albeit somewhat artificial stance, in the context of political discourse.  Our politics today suffers from a distinctive and toxic kind of polarization, in which many people believe not just that their political opponents are wrong, but bad people – bigoted; malicious; unpatriotic; even treasonous – something that was manifested particularly strongly in the last presidential election and is a good part of the reason for its catastrophic result.  If one truly believes that one’s opponents are bad people, then one is likely to want not just to defeat them electorally, but to hurt them, and I think that Trump’s support was as much about sticking it to liberals and Democrats as it was about enthusiasm for his policies or opposition to theirs. Several students thought that at least in our political interaction and discourse, we should always proceed from the Socratic assumption that our opponents believe they are doing good – that they care about the welfare of the country and its citizens just as we do – and that to the extent that they vote and engage in political advocacy in ways that we think are bad, it is due to their being wrong on the issues rather than their being bad people, something with which I agree, even though I tend not to in other less consequential social contexts (as should be clear from the recent discussion between Mark English and me, in the comments section of his last post).

Aristotle – Practical Wisdom and the Prerogatives of Youth

After the Meno comes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a small part of which I covered in a recent This Week’s Special.

https://theelectricagora.com/2017/08/18/this-weeks-special-on-a-metaphor-in-aristotles-nicomachean-ethics/

A core idea that we find in the Nicomachean Ethics is that one is a moral actor and one’s actions are morally scrutable by virtue of the interaction of one’s practical reason and volition.  It is because I am capable of examining the reasons for and against acting in various ways and can direct my behavior on the basis of the results of such an examination that it makes sense to speak of my actions as being morally right, wrong, good, bad, obligatory, prohibited, and the like.  This explains why we subject humans but not animals to moral and legal scrutiny – animals lacking the capacity for practical reason – and it also explains why we are inclined to assign diminished responsibilities and prerogatives to young children, whose practical reason is still nascent. Of course, children grow up, and at some point, their behavior deserves full moral and legal consideration, unless they suffer some handicap that renders their practical reason permanently impaired.

It is because practical reason emerges developmentally that we gradually increase the number of responsibilities and prerogatives that we assign to children, as they mature, a 10 year old having greater responsibilities and prerogatives than a preschooler and a 16 year old having more than a middle-schooler. One would expect, then, that the seriousness and gravity of the responsibilities/prerogatives assigned should be commensurate with the level of practical reason attained, at any particular point in time, and yet, as students were quick to point out, our actual practices exhibit no such scaling.  Of all the prerogatives that we give young people, the gravest is the license to drive a car.  Given that accidents are among the leading causes of serious injury and death in the US, when we license a person to drive, we are trusting them with the lives of everyone on the road, on a daily basis.  And yet, we allow people to drive at just 16 years of age, while other prerogatives, the potential consequences of which are far less serious, are only granted later – sex at 17, voting at 18 and consuming alcohol at 21.  And of course, we must not forget the American penchant for treating children as adults in the criminal courts.  https://eji.org/children-prison

Heinlein – Art as a Metaphor for Creation

This year, I unveiled a brand new version of my upper-division Philosophical Ideas in Literature course.  For the past six or seven years, the course was centered around the concept of the American Dream, and included readings from Nathanael West, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and others.  This new version is devoted entirely to the novels of Philip K. Dick, with a single entry from Robert A. Heinlein.  The reading list, in teaching order, is as follows:

Robert Heinlein, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly

We start the course with Jonathan Hoag, a largely neglected early work, which Heinlein first published in 1942 under a pseudonym.  It is a mind-bending book, the central plot of which involves a man (Jonathan Hoag) who enlists the services of Randall and Cynthia, a husband-and-wife private investigator team, in order to discover what he does for a living, as he suffers from a strange form of amnesia that prevents him from remembering anything that happens during the day.  What we find out about him is unexpected and uncanny, and the result is an expansion of the story and its significance to cosmic, even religious levels.

Most striking are several small sections in which we provided with an alternative creation mythology, one that bears a number of interesting similarities to (as well as differences from) Bereishit (Genesis).  What interested my students the most was the way in which the story conceives of the creation of the universe, as well as its creator(s), in artistic terms.  As Hoag explains to Randall and Cynthia at the novella’s end:

“Once there was a race, quite unlike the human race… I have no way of describing to you what they looked like or how they lived, but they had one characteristic you can understand: they were creative.  The creating and enjoying of works of art was their occupation and their reason for being…

The Artist created this world, after His Own fashion and using postulates which seemed well to him.  His teacher approved on the whole, but…”

We learn that the Artist created a race of powerful beings, the “Sons of the Bird,” who in many ways are reminiscent of Bereishit’s Nephilim and are considered a corrupt, degenerate form of life.

“The teacher did not approve of the Sons of the Bird and suggested certain improvements in the creation.  But the Artist was hasty or careless; instead of removing them entirely He merely painted over them, made them appear to be some of the new creations with which He peopled His world.

All of which might not have mattered if the work had not been selected for judging.  Inevitably, the critics noticed them; they were bad art, and they disfigured the final work.  There was some doubt in their minds as to whether or not the creation was worth preserving.  That is why I am here.  I am an art critic.”

Scattered throughout the human population, the “new creations with which He populated the world,” are a number of human-incarnated “Critics,” whose job is to determine which part of the world, if any, should be preserved; whether there is anything in the Artist’s creation worth saving.  Hoag was at first suspicious that there might not be; that the taint from the Artist’s initial creation – the Sons of the Bird – had spoiled the entirety of creation.  But upon closer examination of the world and especially, through his interactions with Randall and Cynthia, Hoag discovered that many things in the world were worth saving.

“Let me speak first of the matters I observed as a critic.  Your world has several pleasures.  There is eating.” He reached out and pulled off from its bunch a muscat grape, fat and sugar-sweet, and ate it appreciatively.  “An odd one, that.  And very remarkable.  No one ever before thought of making an art of the simple business of obtaining the necessary energy.  Your artist has very real talent.

And then there is sleeping.  A strange reflexive business in which the Artist’s own creations are allowed to create more worlds of their own…

There is drinking, which mixes both eating and dreaming.

There is the exquisite pleasure of conversing together, friend with friend, as we are doing now.  That is not new, but it goes to the credit of the Artist that He included it.”

But Hoag still was uncertain.  There still was “so much that was bad, poorly drawn, and amateurish” that he still did not think the world as a whole worthy of preservation.  It was the relationship between Randall and Cynthia, their clear, genuine, unaffected love for one another that decided him.  “I could not find it in me to approve the work as a whole,” Hoag explains, “until I encountered and savored this, the tragedy of human love.”

The human race is spared, and Hoag sets about the business of destroying the Sons of the Bird and all that is attached to them, in a startling sequence at the end of the book that is in many ways evocative of the flight of Lot and his wife from Sodom and Gomorrah, though both Randall and Cynthia survive the ordeal intact.

My students and I had extensive conversations about this alternative Creation myth and its emphasis on the artistic dimension of Creation.  It struck us as worth considering that both the rejection and defense of theistic creationism today focus on the world essentially as a product of  engineering, lying firmly within the domain of science.  They simply disagree on whether theistic creation is necessary in order to explain the existence of the physical-chemical-biological world.  But what if one thinks of the world as one might of a painting or a sculpture or a play and of its most notable features as being its aesthetic and emotional qualities, rather than its design as a mechanism?  Does a more compelling argument for theistic creation lie in that direction?  As a machine, after all, the world and the life in it are not particularly efficient in their design, a point that is often offered as an argument against theistic creation.  But the world certainly is beautiful and the relations between those of us who inhabit it, at their best, are both beautiful and profound.  As an engineer, then, God might seem to some mediocre at best, but as an artist, he may come across as the ultimate master of his craft.

I doubt any theists were created among my students as a result of reading Heinlein’s amazing book.  But the discussion to which it gave rise says everything about why it is such a pleasure to teach.

47 Comments »

  1. This all sounds so familiar- in tone, I mean, not content. (though maybe that too.) reminds me how much I miss talking with you, Danny.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Dan-K,
    But what if one thinks of the world as one might of a painting or a sculpture or a play? Of its most notable features being its aesthetic and emotional characteristics, rather than its design as a mechanism? Does a more compelling argument for theistic creation lie in that direction? As a machine, after all, the world and the life in it are not particularly efficient in their design, a point that is often offered as an argument against theistic creation. But the world certainly is beautiful and the relations between those of us who inhabit it, at their best, are both beautiful and profound. As an engineer, God might seem to some mediocre at best. But as an artist, he might come across as a master of his craft.

    This is really most profound.

    (assuming, for the sake of argument, that God exists)
    The most important and the most basic thing we know about God is that he created. Why create? A question I will answer in another comment. But he did create and and his act of creation was vast, immense and complex. Clearly creation was immensely important, so important that we must conclude that God is inherently creative.

    I once horrified Coel, who was arguing for the multiverse hypothesis, that the existence of the multiverse would provide good evidence for God’s existence. Therefore I said, we were on the same side. How could that be, he asked. Well, I said, God is infinite in all his attributes, he is creative, therefore he is infinitely creative and an infinitely creative God would create an infinite number of universes, therefore the multiverse theory had to be correct. Oh…, he said, somewhat dumbfounded.

    I will continue to develop my argument.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The really important question is this; why would God create. After all, if God is omnipotent, omnipresent and all knowing then God will know every outcome of every universe that he created. He will know all outcomes from the moment of creation to every possible moment in the future. Given this, there is no need to create. God would be a singular being whose mind would be simultaneously aware, in exquisite detail, of all possible outcomes and all possible timelines for all possible acts of creation. God would have no need to create.

    But here we are. We exist and this is the most powerful argument against God’s existence. If God existed we would be superfluous, but we exist, therefore God does not exist.

    There is a further conundrum. A God whose whose all powerful, omnipresent and all knowing mind knows all possible outcomes can hardly be called creative.

    But I have assumed that God exists, so there must be some way out of this dilemma. More to come.

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    • Labnut: The late Victor Stenger, the physicist, actually used that as an argument *against* God’s existence. If God is the sum of all perfections, the he has no needs or wants, which means he would have no reason to create.

      I wonder if conceiving of Creation artistically helps get around that problem as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In the scenario I described above, God has free will. He can freely imagine all possible outcomes and therefore has no need to create. But if God is creative the only way to continue God’s act of creation is to create creatures that also possess free will. These creature can continue to create, albeit on a far smaller scale, in a way that cannot be pre-imagined by God, because they possess free will. In this way God continues to realise his creative agency through us. This makes us immensely important to God, and explains the Christian narrative. We are necessary to God’s creative nature.

    Therefore our highest calling is to be creative. It is what gives our lives their ultimate meaning.

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  5. But there is a consequence to receiving this God-like gift of free will. It is either total, granting us complete free will, or it is not free will. Therefore God’s plan requires that we be placed in a non-interventionist world. There is a further consequence, and that is that we should be placed in an environment driven by chance, so that our creative endeavours are not determined by our environment. This non-interventionist world must make God hidden, otherwise his very presence would deprive us of free will.

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  6. To develop my argument further. There is a profound gulf between knowing something and experiencing something. This was the point of the Mary in the monochrome room mind experiment. God shares in our consciousness and by sharing in our consciousness God therefore experiences all that we experience.

    Thus we are necessary both to realise God’s creative agency and we are necessary for God to experience his creation.

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  7. There is a further point, and I find this utterly transformative. If God shares my consciousness and shares my experiences then I need not ask where God is. I described this to a friend while having coffee with him. I asked where God was and he looked back at me rather puzzled. I said he is looking at me through your eyes. I then reached forward and slapped my friend. He drew back in great surprise. What was that all about, he asked. I said that God felt that slap and so I not only slapped you but I also slapped God. I said that every act of unkindness to another person is also felt by God and is an act of unkindness to God. I said that every act of love to another person is felt by God and is also an act of love to God.

    Now when I look around at the faces of people around me I know that God is looking back at me. I also know that when I look into their eyes I am seeing God, who gazes back at me. And now I understand the meaning of ethics. God requires ethical behaviour of me because he feels the pain that others experience because of my unethical behaviour. He requires me to love all because he feels that love in the people that I love.

    This utterly transforms how I see and treat other people. We are both the agents of God’s creative will and we are the means by which God experiences his creation. When we experience beauty, awe and reverence it is so that God can experience the beauty, awe and reverence of his creation.

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  8. There is a very interesting consequence to my argument. I maintain that our free will is necessary for God’s creative agency. Therefore our possession of free will becomes a clear and tangible way to falsify God’s existence. If it can be shown that we do not possess free will then we have good reason to believe that God does not exist

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  9. Dan-K,

    Labnut: The late Victor Stenger, the physicist, actually used that as an argument *against* God’s existence. If God is the sum of all perfections, the he has no needs or wants, which means he would have no reason to create.

    Yes, in my opinion, that is the only good argument against God’s existence that the atheist crowd have. But it is the only one they need because it is so powerful. If we, homo sapiens, did not exist then it would be an open and shut case. However we exist, as a creative, free willing species, and this completely answers the argument from existence, as I have outlined above.

    But the existence of free will is central to the rebuttal. If it can be shown that free will does not exist then the hypothesis that God exists has been decisively falsified. This is the one and only way that science can show that God does not exist.

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  10. which means that we should think of bad behavior as a product of the ignorance rather than the villainy of the actor

    I think the truth is more complex. If the choice were merely between good and bad the outcome is usually obvious. Ignorance has nothing to do with it. I cannot be ignorant that adultery is wrong.

    There is a wild card in all of this and that is desire. I may know that adultery is wrong but that lovely, sexy and desirable young woman has excited my desires such that my desire becomes stronger than my knowledge of right and wrong. I perform an act of mental legerdemain and shelve moral considerations while I accede to my desires.

    To help me in this mental legerdemain I may resort to one or more of the following strategies:
    1) Consequentialism.
    My wife will never find out, therefore no harm will result. In any case the relief of my emotional and sexual needs is good for me, so good will result.
    2) Relativism.
    Sexual mores are all relative anyway and we should be broad minded about the subject.
    3) Arrogance.
    I am more intelligent and insightful then the rest and I can determine when these sexual mores have no applicability to me.
    4) Delay.
    Let me do it just once and then I will get back on the straight and narrow.
    5) Ego priority.
    I deserve to have some fun for once in my life.
    6) They are all doing it.
    Why shouldn’t I also get a share of the cake?
    7) Blame.
    Why wife drove me to this with her behaviour.
    8) Retribution.
    My wife deserves it because she has been cheating so much.

    These strategies are in the nature of a mental smokescreen. They obfuscate the issue long enough that we get a chance to satisfy our desire. They delay the onset of guilt or regret. With practice, guilt and regret are weakened until they finally wither away and die. Essentially we practice self serving dishonesty, doubling the extent of the moral wrong.

    What happens is that moral sensitivity diminishes and finally dies allowing us to practise wrong without the need to resort to the strategies above. On the other hand we keep moral sensitivity alive by practising moral priming.

    Finally we need to acknowledge that principled behaviour is a war with desire. It is a battlefield with victories and defeats. We are not all automatically saints. It takes time, guidance and reinforcement to develop the strength of character to behave virtuously in the face of powerful temptations.

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  11. Dan

    You report some obviously worthwhile discussions, and your love of teaching comes across.

    “As a machine, after all, the world and the life in it are not particularly efficient in their design, a point that is often offered as an argument against theistic creation. But the world certainly is beautiful and the relations between those of us who inhabit it, at their best, are both beautiful and profound. As an engineer, God might seem to some mediocre at best.  But as an artist, he might come across as a master of his craft.”

    Clearly Heinlein’s ideas formed the basis for a good discussion, but, as usual, I tend to approach such ideas in terms of intellectual history. The dichotomy being highlighted between artistic creativity on the one hand and an engineering perspective on the other seems to me to be firmly rooted in Romanticism, for example. This doesn’t invalidate the contrast, of course, but it does influence the way I perceive it.

    Heinlein was strongly influenced by Romantic writers and the philosophy of Romanticism, wasn’t he?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The point of distinguishing the two visions is simply to highlight the difference between the values of beauty and efficiency and to trace the implications of each, when considering the Creation and the possibility of a Creator.

      Like

  12. Dan,
    Just a couple comments.

    Won’t say anything on Heilein, I tried reading him (Stranger in a Strange Land), wasn’t my cup of tea – but that was many years ago, perhaps I’ll try again.

    On the worsening condition of American politics; as repeatedly noted by commentators, all of the people the Trumpistas have been attacking in Justice and the FBI are life-long Republicans. Trump has no real ideology, but his followers in Congress are. My point is that we may be seeing a real purge. In the Gingrich years and in the years of the Tea Party, the purge of moderates occurred state by state, seat by seat. Now they seem to want to go after respected professionals just because they won’t swear loyalty to the man, rather than maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and to the country, according to their oath of office. When one sees a purge of this kind, it seems all possibility for real dialogue is lost. Thank heavens there are still conservatives and Republicans willing to speak out – but very few of these hold any office.
    ” Several students thought that at least in our political interaction and discourse, we should always proceed from the Socratic assumption that our opponents believe they are doing good – that they care about the welfare of the country and its citizens just as we do – and that to the extent vote and engage in political advocacy in ways that we think are bad, it is due to their being wrong with respect to the issues rather than bad people,” – well, one hopes; but we are living in dark times.

    About: “One would expect, then, that the seriousness and gravity of the responsibilities/prerogatives assigned should be commensurate with the level of practical reason attained, at any particular point in time, and yet, as students were quick to point out, our actual practices exhibit no such commensurate scaling.” I think this is true, and I suspect it has partly to do with our consumer based economy, and the affluence of adolescents in the post-WWII years; and partly to do with political expediency. I’ve also said that one of the gravest mistakes made politically was lowering the voting age to 18. And I’ve been saying that since I was 17, when I was more involved in my social life and having fun, battling to lose weight and drinking a bit too much, to be considering national policy. Finding my first job was more important to me than the national economy. It’s absurd to foist adult responsibility on children. Our prolonged adolescence, which is both celebrated and ignored, manipulated and manipulative, has not contributed much of real benefit politically.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dan

    I follow the argument but, as is often the case with philosophical arguments, I get off the bus very early on because I don’t embrace the assumptions which I see as being implicit in the way the issues are being framed.

    “But what if one thinks of the world as one might of a painting or a sculpture or a play and of its most notable features as being its aesthetic and emotional qualities, rather than its design as a mechanism?”

    I am open to the idea that we humans and our antics are the most interesting (or “notable” as you put it) things in the universe. I can imagine the gods, like the Greek gods, spying on us (in the form of birds, say) for their own amusement. But I balk at the metaphor you (and Heinlein) are positing (the world as a work of art *rather than* a work of engineering). I suspect this dichotomy may only work or seem plausible (or natural) to those who are more committed to a Romantic worldview than I am.

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  14. Mark,
    I am open to the idea that we humans and our antics are the most interesting (or “notable” as you put it) things in the universe.

    There can be no question of that, but why? See below.

    But I balk at the metaphor you (and Heinlein) are positing (the world as a work of art *rather than* a work of engineering).

    It is both a work of art and a work of engineering. Unlike Dan-K I think it is a near perfect work of engineering. This engineering marvel unfolds precisely according to the master engineering drawing that we call the laws of nature. When we look closely at this master engineering drawing we see something of profound beauty that excites and amazes with its elegance.

    But here is the puzzling thing. When see this beauty and elegance, we are really seeing something in ourselves. We are seeing an inward capacity for elegance and beauty that we project onto the world around us. It is this same inward capacity that we exercise when we create works of art. This capacity is a miracle. It is not contained in or determined by the particles and fields that make up this universe. What makes this capacity even more of a miracle is its creative nature. Its creations are not contained or limited by the number of particles in the universe. Its output is potentially unbounded. For millions upon millions of years our creative output will grow without limit. Ideas have no limit. They are not constrained by the number of particles in the universe.

    Our creative output will become the most important thing in the universe. And as this happens we will see the Universe does have purpose and meaning after all.

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  15. Earlier I said,
    It is both a work of art and a work of engineering.

    To clarify. We, Homo Sapiens, are the work of art, in that creativity is the deepest part of our nature, and the Universe is a work of engineering. But we are a natural part of the Universe, meaning that creativity is naturally embedded in the Universe. The Universe is therefore creative, though its plumbing is engineering.

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  16. The idea of God as possessing superabundant creativity is the topic of A.O. Lovejoy’s classic “The Great Chain of Being”. Looks like that idea is making a mini-comeback — on this website, at least.

    Alan

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    • Alan: I thought it was an interesting line of discussion, in class. I don’t buy into it, as a literal matter. But it is an interesting way to consider the question, especially in light of the the recent “New Atheists” efforts to demonstrate that God does not exist on the basis of science.

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  17. The superabundant creativity idea seems to have the consequence that “Being” is fully occupied — there is as it were no room for vacancy. Then too “Being” seems to have to have a hierarchy, from the highest (God) to the lowest (“matter” or some up-to-date equivalent).

    I realise how much of an empiricist I am when I start to think in these terms. My instinct is to say that “reality” just has no overall structure or necessity. But that’s a metaphysical commitment I have no way of justifying.

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  18. Another apparent consequence is the existence of angels, or something like them, since the “gap” between us and God can’t be left empty.

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  19. Robin,
    The question is, could God create just anything at all and then create a being who would find it beautiful?

    I would put it the other way around. Machines cannot perceive or love the true, the good and the beautiful and we are after all just machines. These are properties of God. God’s presence ignites in our consciousness the capacity for perceiving and loving the true, the good and the beautiful. We are perceiving(in our very limited way) as God does perceive because God enables it in us.

    could God create just anything at all

    God created the Universe(or multiple Universes if you believe multiverse hypothesis) and this unfolded according to the laws of nature because the laws of nature are the tools of God’s creative nature.

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  20. Dan-K,
    in light of the the recent “New Atheists” efforts to demonstrate that God does not exist on the basis of science.

    The idea that science demonstrates the non-existence of God is a complete non-starter. It does nothing of the sort. I maintain that the reverse is true, that in science we find intriguing pointers to the existence of God.

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  21. Alan,
    Another apparent consequence is the existence of angels, or something like them, since the “gap” between us and God can’t be left empty.

    I regard angels as just a metaphorical device appropriate for the culture at the time of the original telling.

    Like

  22. Dan-K,
    But it is an interesting way to consider the question,

    I am glad you brought it up because I have independently reached this conclusion, though not in the fictional form you described.

    I don’t buy into it, as a literal matter.

    Well, yes, because you don’t believe in God’s existence anyway. But supposing, just for the sake of argument, that God did exist, what kind of God would this be?

    I first came to the conclusion that God exists (why is the subject of another discussion) and then I asked myself what kind of God this could be. My earlier comments in this essay outline one part of my conclusion. I also concluded that the laws of nature were the properties of God, that by investigating the laws of nature(science) we were also investigating God. I once teased our good friend Coel by claiming that this made science a branch of theology!!

    Once seen in this way it is incoherent to think of science in opposition to religion, though man’s faulty perception of God could create such a faulty perception.

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  23. Labnut

    My point is that God doesn’t need to decide that something is going to be beautiful when she is making it.

    She can make any old thing and then decide that it is going to be beautiful later on because it only becomes beautiful when she creates a being who finds it so.

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  24. Labnut: It’s fine to say that angels are “just a metaphorical device appropriate for the culture at the time of the original telling”, but why not say that about all metaphysical speculation? “God” was just that in his time and “multiverses” are just that in our time?

    I’m agnostic about all of them. For better or worse.

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  25. Alan,
    It’s fine to say that angels are “just a metaphorical device appropriate for the culture at the time of the original telling”, but why not say that about all metaphysical speculation?

    Let me give you just one example of why a metaphorical device is appropriate, by using the creation story in Genesis. God could have chosen to communicate that story in scientifically accurate terms of today but it would obviously have been incomprehensible to people of that time. Consider for a moment if the story was told to us in the prevailing scientific understanding available in 100,000 years time. That story would have been incomprehensible to us, considering the immense advances in science and knowledge that will take place in 100,000 years!!!

    It was therefore necessary for the story to be told in a time and culture independent way that would be understandable to all generations. And not only to all generations but to all levels of those generations, from humble plumber to proud academic. It would need to be independent of the current level of scientific understanding. This is achieved by telling a metaphorical story which is capable of being reinterpreted according to the current understanding of the day. Then consider that the Genesis creation story is essentially spiritual in nature and is not intended to be a science manual and you will understand why metaphorical tools are appropriate. The Bible is about morality and not science.

    And the metaphor works because it is easily possible to reinterpret the metaphorical creation story of Genesis in a way that makes perfect scientific sense in terms of today’s science.

    I’m agnostic about all of them. For better or worse.

    You have chosen quite a radical form of scepticism. Is it useful or even healthy to be so sceptical? I doubt it, but I respect your choices.

    I have chosen a different path, for what I believe are carefully thought out, entirely rational reasons, wholly compatible with the best science known today. Perhaps I will one day explain this reasoning process.

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  26. Labnut,

    Some of us are naturally skeptical. You’re not, obviously. I don’t want to debate God’s existence: although I’m an atheist, I dislike the New Atheists because their proselytism makes me as uncomfortable as that of the people who stand on the corner and hand out religious tracts does.

    Anyway, you ask if it’s useful or even healthy to be as skeptical as Alan Tapper is, and while I’m not Alan Tapper, I believe that it’s always useful and especially healthy to be true to yourself. So if you’re skeptical by nature as I am, live that.

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  27. Wallerstein,
    Some of us are naturally skeptical. You’re not, obviously

    First and foremost, I am intensely curious. I believe in keeping an open mind while I search for a deeper, 360 degree, contextual understanding. I believe in donning each of De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. I believe that exploring and understanding ideas is more important than trying to find fault with them. I believe that truths are to be found in surprising places if I keep my mind open and receptive. I believe it is more important to understand a person that it is to condemn him.

    That is my credo. To be inquisitive, inquiring and endlessly curious, to seek understanding before I seek fault. I also think that the academic model, in both the sciences and the humanities, coupled with the legal model, are the finest means of arriving at the truth in their respective domains. I reject pseudo medicine, pseudo science and pseudo history. I reject revisionism and denialism. I also believe that once I have done my due diligence, carefully, thoroughly, extensively, honestly and fairly , that finally I must make an objective assessment. That is the last of De Bono’s six thinking hats.

    I could go on, but I hope I have said enough to show that the phrase “You’re not[sceptical], obviously” does not begin to describe me, since, obviously, I regard scepticism as being merely one of thinking tools in a thoughtful person’s armoury. It should go without saying that it is a well used tool in my armoury but it is far from being the only tool. I only bring that tool out after deploying the other tools.

    I believe that it’s always useful and especially healthy to be true to yourself.

    Which is why I said that I respect Alan’s choices.

    More generally though, being true to yourself has become society’s self-serving, self-justifying mantra. One can also be true to a higher standard, to a higher purpose and to becoming a better person with a nobler vision.

    Should I be true to myself or should I be true to the better person I could be? The one accepts me as I am, while the other accepts me as the better person that I could become. There is a large difference.

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    • Labnut,

      If you take the trouble to read what I wrote above, you’ll see that I never claimed that you have no skeptical aspects to your character, merely that you are not naturally skeptical.

      There is a difference.

      And those of us who are naturally skeptical have moments of intense dogmatic faith, but they don’t last long.

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  28. I have no trouble believing in the reality of gravitational waves, even though their discovery requires measurement precision on the order of 10 to the power of 20.

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

    My sceptical hackles rise only when told of what I take to be purely metaphysical claims, such as the real existence of multiverses or infinite actual possible worlds or a universe in which every logically possible space is occupied. A line has to be drawn somewhere.

    When apparently metaphysical stories (such as Genesis or the opening of John’s Gospel or Reincarnation myths) are interpreted as moral metaphors (Jordan Peterson has an interesting and very popular series on YouTube in which he does this) I find myself puzzled. I don’t understand why past cultures required myth as a device for representing morality. But that’s another topic.

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  29. Wallerstein,
    If you take the trouble to read what I wrote

    That comes naturally to an inveterate reader like myself.

    merely that you are not naturally skeptical.

    I can see that you don’t know me.

    And those of us who are naturally skeptical have moments of intense dogmatic faith

    That is very interesting. This has not happened to me.
    But enough of the labelling. It is more interesting to consider the arguments presented in the essay and the comments.

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  30. Alan,
    I don’t understand why past cultures required myth as a device for representing morality.

    First, I think it is useful to avoid tendentious terms like “myth” when we are talking about metaphorical narratives. You think the metaphor represents a myth while I think it represents an underlying truth. But the truth or falsity of the metaphor is not the subject of debate. We are instead talking about the role of metaphor.

    I have already given an example from the Genesis creation story of why metaphorical narrative is useful, in that it can convey a (supposed)truth in such a way that it is made memorable, comprehensible, and independent of time, culture, background or context.

    Consider the simple but interesting story of Little Red Riding Hood. Most of us will have read that story to our children. No one supposes this precise event took place and in that sense it is a myth. It instead represents the encapsulated experience of the hazards that young girls face at the hands of older, predatory men(US Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser is a notorious example), and in that sense it represents an underlying truth, as so many young gymnasts have discovered.

    Metaphorical narratives are effective because they are interesting, they capture the imagination, they are memorable and they are motivational. They are also good psychology. Dry lists of prescriptive dos and don’ts are not terribly effective. Narratives are the most effective way of conveying moral truths and metaphors add the necessary colour and emotional impact that give the narratives their force.

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  31. Alan,
    be purely metaphysical claims, such as the real existence of multiverses

    It is anything but a purely metaphysical claim. Even a cursory reading of the dense mathematical reasoning that grounds the multiverse hypothesis is enough to show that it does not remotely resemble metaphysics. It is firmly grounded on good science and extends that science by rigorous mathematical reasoning, using the methods of theoretical physics. It has reached into regions where, for the time being, empirical testing cannot be done. This does not automatically transform it into metaphysics! It merely means that it is a speculative scientific hypothesis. All science begins in this way, as speculative scientific hypotheses until finally they can be verified empirically.

    The Higgs Boson is a lovely example of this. For a long time it was a speculative hypothesis, grounded on existing science but extending that science through mathematical reasoning. Eventually it became possible to verify it empirically and Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize, for science, and not metaphysics..

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  32. “Dry lists of prescriptive dos and don’ts” — like the list that Moses brought down from the mountain?

    Multiverses? OK, I’m out of my depth here, but (1) we can’t ever have experience of them and (2) we can only postulate them and (3) the only reason for the postulate is they might serve to explain something we can’t currently otherwise explain and (4) ontological parsimony is against them.

    The Higgs Boson is a very different sort of case, I think. I’m not sceptically inclined about that.

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  33. Alan
    “Dry lists of prescriptive dos and don’ts” — like the list that Moses brought down from the mountain?

    Yes, exactly like that. I think you have made my point for me. Alone they would have had no motivating force. But backed up by the rich metaphorical narratives of the Old and New Testament they have had a profound influence on the whole of Western society. Not bad hey, for a tiny little nation perched on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, between powerful, predatory neighbours!

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  34. Alan,
    (1) we can’t ever have experience of them and (2) we can only postulate them and (3) the only reason for the postulate is they might serve to explain something we can’t currently otherwise explain and (4) ontological parsimony is against them.

    You have put your finger on the basic problem that is beginning to be faced by fundamental physics. Physics is approaching the boundaries of the knowable. What do we do about it? Throw up our hands in epistemic despair and retreat into metaphysics? Or do we try to push the scientific envelope as far as possible? I, for one, vote with theoretical physicists that we should do our utmost to push the scientific envelope as far as possible into the unknown. We know from the history of science that this approach is the most fruitful, that the boundary to the unknown yields in surprising and unexpected ways to the prolonged force of human inquiry.

    Remember that all science begins as speculative hypotheses. Some scientific hypotheses remain in that state for a long time before receiving empirical confirmation. The multiverse is one such speculative scientific hypothesis and we may only find empirical confirmation in more than one hundred years time. Our inability to find empirical confirmation today does not, of itself, make it metaphysics, it instead makes it a tough scientific problem to solve.

    But, sometime in the future, science will come up against the boundaries of the genuinely unknowable. They will be impermeable to human inquiry. We will only know that after a prolonged and intensive attack by science. How will we react to the discovery of such boundaries? I suspect that science will lose some of its lustre and its funding as attention is increasingly diverted to technology that better exploits the available science. I hope then that scientistic hubris is replaced by moral concern for the state of our species.

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