Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried: ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.’

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Religion has long been a source of tension for me. On the one hand I find it to be extraordinarily interesting. Religions seem to reveal so much about our separate cultures and our shared human condition. Further, tolerance is important to me—both personally and philosophically. I would never want to be a zealot who could only be friends with like-minded people; nor do I want to be dismissive or scornful of other views.

Nevertheless, while I am comfortable with religion in the abstract, when I confront religious sentiments and behavior in person I feel uneasy. I have trouble understanding or accepting why people I know and respect would choose to be religious. And my uneasiness stems from being wholly and completely unconvinced of the validity of supernatural beliefs of any kind.

In brief, my skepticism is partly evidential (I see no compelling evidence for religious claims), partly philosophical (theological arguments are fallacious, and supernatural explanations are vapid), partly anthropological (the huge abundance of difference beliefs across the world, revealing religion to be a social institution and not a divine gift), and partly historical (the clear evidence that religions changed markedly over time, and the wars and persecutions that religious beliefs have given rise to).

In short, supernatural beliefs are wholly incompatible with how I think and what I know about the world.

While many religious people in the modern world would grant all this—saying it makes perfect sense to be an atheist—they might still argue that it makes just as much sense to be religious. “Nobody knows, right?” is the classic phrase. And indeed, nobody does or can know if there is a supernatural being who created the universe. So, in the absence of knowledge, isn’t faith an acceptable response? “Maybe I can’t prove God exists,” the argument continues, “but you can’t prove that He doesn’t exist.”

I think this reasoning is obviously fallacious. If there is something which is completely unknown, the only logical response is to suspend judgment. Further, the inability to disprove something has no bearing on whether it should be believed. I cannot disprove that there is a French teacup on Mercury, or a magic dragon sleeping in the center of the earth, or an army of invisible and intangible spirits living in my closet—but I would be wrong to believe these things.

The question is never, “Can this be disproved?” but “Is there any evidence to support this belief?” Believing in something just because it cannot be disproved leads to absurdities.

It might be argued, however, that suspending judgment is unreasonable since all of us will die one day and we risk eternal damnation if we are wrong. Indeed, there are situations in which we are forced, from practical necessity, to act in the absence of knowledge. If a roof is collapsing and there are three doors, you must choose one even if you don’t know where it goes.

But I think that the human condition is not comparable to this situation. We have every reason to believe that consciousness ends with death. There is no evidence for intangible, immaterial souls—indeed, everything we know supports the opposite conclusion: that consciousness is inextricably tied to the material brain. The very idea of souls and the afterlife was never supported by dependable evidence in the first place—it is a traditional idea, handed down to us by people who lived in more ignorant times. Besides, the psychological roots of such an idea in our fear of death and our sorrow for lost loved ones seems remarkably obvious.

In sum, since we have good reasons for believing that consciousness ends with life, the necessity of choosing in ignorance is taken away. We can safely suspend judgment. I have thus come to the conclusion that supernatural beliefs are irrational. (This issue can clearly be debated ad infinitum but this is supposed to be a short post!)

Given this conclusion of mine, I cannot help but feel uneasy around people whose religion plays a large role in their day-to-day life. Dietary restrictions, sartorial restrictions, fasting, praying, lengthy rituals, limits on whom one can marry or even befriend—all this strikes me as a severe limitation on life, with no justification whatsoever.

Of course not all religious people—maybe not even most—have a lifestyle markedly different from my own. Indeed, there are huge numbers of “moderate” religious people who seldom or rarely go to church or pray, who do not obey the numerous traditional lifestyle restrictions, and who basically lead secular or nearly secular lives—and yet who, when pressed, still identify as religious and who profess to believe in God.

Now, you might think that I would be less bothered by this sort of moderate religiousness. But I find it just as perplexing. For if God the Creator existed, and He were really the arbiter of morals and the source of good, and if there were really a heaven and a hell that awaited us in the next life—well, how could you logically believe all this and not do everything in your power to live in accordance with your religion? By definition, religion deals with ultimate questions and the most permanent consequences; and so it boggles my mind how somebody could believe in it and yet do nothing.

How can you be a Christian, for example, and be friends with atheists or Muslims or Jews? This seems like a silly question, since inter-faith friendships are very common. But I cannot help wondering: Can someone be a sincere Christian without believing that his non-Christian friends will be denied entrance into heaven? Thus for their sake shouldn’t this Christian do his very best to evangelize his non-Christian friends? And if these questions never even occur to the Christian, does he sincerely believe in what he says he does?

Moderate religiousness bothers me because it cheapens the entire question. To be moderately religious, in other words, strikes me as inevitably hypocritical—since it means not living in accordance with one’s stated views on the ultimate questions. Indeed, I think it is this very hypocrisy which led Nietzsche to accuse his contemporaries of killing God: they professed to believe in God, but lived without Him. Identifying as religious without living in accordance with any religious tenets is like saying, “Do these questions really matter?”

And to many people, perhaps these ultimate questions of Fate, God, and the origin of the universe really do not occupy much thought-space. But for me it is deeply important to find out the truth as far as possible, and to live my life in accordance with this truth. Thus I feel equally at odds with deeply religious people (I admire their conviction, but I think they are wrong) and moderately religious people (I admire their tolerance, but I am frightened by their lack of concern with living in accordance with their stated beliefs).

Thus, when I confront religion—serious or moderate—in people I know, I cannot help feeling uneasy.

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Who overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe.

—John Milton

Like nearly all good quotes from Paradise Lost, these words are spoken by Satan. He is both commenting on his own expulsion from heaven a well as his plans to disrupt God’s plans through guile and craft rather than force. (He tried using force first, but his army lost.)

This maxim strikes me as true with regard to both physical and intellectual force. If one person is stronger than another, one army better trained and equipped than another, one nation richer and bigger than another, they might be able to have their way through force alone. And doubtless, many have used force successfully. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it is seldom possible to completely defeat an enemy’s strength. Battles are costly, and destruction takes valuable resources. Usually the fallen enemy limps away to fight another day. What’s more, when you use force, you make more enemies than you defeat. There are innumerable examples of this. Through belligerent foreign policy, the United States has often undermined its own security this way, by inspiring hatred in the hearts of many while defeating the arms of a few.

This lesson is equally true in intellectual battles. Let’s say that you and I are having a disagreement. Let’s also say that I am almost certainly wrong, and you almost certainly right. Nevertheless, if you convince me by force, against my will, if you are condescending and contradicting, even if you’re right, you will only inspire resentment and bitterness in me. I will dig in my heels; I will struggle and strain; I will look for every possible argument, however farfetched, to combat you, just because my pride will be on the line. Every intellectual fight is inevitably a fight about something besides the ostensible subject. Every argument becomes a fight of egos, not of minds, and thus a battle in the purest sense. We are never less well disposed to empathize with another person’s point of view if we feel that they are trying to do us harm.

With varying levels of success, I try to apply this lesson whenever I have a disagreement. The trick, I’ve found, is to always try to find some truth in what your partner is saying. (Call them a partner, not an opponent.) Tell them all the ways they’re right before you say any of your own ideas. Then, even if you disagree, don’t frame your comments as contradictions to what they said. Instead, treat your ideas as additions to their ideas, as different bricks in the same structure. This way, you will have an ally instead of an enemy, and they will be much more well disposed towards agreeing with you.

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.