Monday, May 11, 2015

For People to Do Good Things, That Takes Religion

A while back I posed a problem for the materialistic model of the mind and our thoughts, how, unless an idea already was present in the brain, how would our brains know how to build whatever molecules or structures were required to comprise that idea as a physical structure in our brain.   That was only a shorthand version of the problem, it would still be there whatever the idea-structure proposed to comprise the material existence of an idea was.   How could the brain build exactly the right complex physical entity that would be the physical existence of a materialist idea without the idea actually being present in the brain to serve as a model or blueprint of the idea?   Though, if the statistics of my blog are correct I would guess several hundred people or more read that question but no one proposed an answer to the problem that would be consistent with a "brain-only" currently fashionable, materialist, "physicalist" or "naturalistic" explanation of our minds, our thoughts, our most basic and essentially experienced being and existence, the base from which we do every single thing we are capable of doing, including experiencing and observing the physical universe, thinking about it and coming up with any idea we might have, materialistic, idealistic, atheistic, religious, agnostically indifferent, frivolous or serious.

Our minds, the minds of other animals, consciousness, mental activity have always been the "hard problem" of materialism, I think, essentially for reasons like the one I posed, there is no way to make sense of our experience of thinking, especially in real time, in a material frame work.  The attempts of atheists to dispose of consciousness, other than being the supreme example of intellectual decadence, has had real life, political dangers because if you begin with a program of devaluing human minds, you inevitably start a program of devaluing human lives by turning people into objects.  Which does, actually, constitute a coherent universal explanation of the problem of evil as done by human beings to other human beings and, also, to all sentient creatures and life, in general.  There have never been a shortage of people who, no matter how fervently and readily they will firmly believe in some purportedly objective devaluation of other people, will exempt themselves and those they care about from their otherwise universal practice.  The practice of devaluing other people into less than human, less than deserving the full measure of our moral obligation is the origin of all human evil.


In reading around the web over my posts about Max Tegmark, I again came across a person who passes in sciency materialism today as an expert on issues of morality, "the question of evil", etc.  Steven Weinberg, who uses the existence of evil as one of the major planks in his personal war on religion.  In the first of the things I came across this weekend a Profile of Steven Weinberg from The End of Science, Scientific America's John Horgan says:

Weinberg was well aware that many people hungered for a different message from physics. In fact, earlier that day he had read in The New York Times that the physicist Paul Davies had received a million-dollar prize for work “advancing public understanding of God or spirituality.” Davies had written numerous books, notably The Mind of God, published in 1992, suggesting that the laws of physics reveal a plan underlying nature, a plan in which human consciousness may play a central role.

After telling me about Davies’s prize, Weinberg chuckled mirthlessly. “I was thinking of cabling Davies and saying, ‘Do you know of any organization that is willing to offer a million dollar prize for work showing that there is no divine plan?’”

In Dreams of a Final Theory, Weinberg had dealt rather harshly with all this talk of divine plans. He raised the embarrassing issue of human evil and suffering. What kind of plan is it that allows the Holocaust, and countless other evils, to happen? What kind of planner?

Many physicists, intoxicated by the power of their mathematical theories, have suggested that “God is a geometer.” Weinberg retorted, in effect, that if God is a geometer, then He is a cruel or callous geometer, and Weinberg wanted nothing to do with Him.

I asked Weinberg what gave him the fortitude to sustain such a bleak vision of the human condition. “I sort of enjoy my tragic view,” he replied with a little smile. “After all, which would you rather see, a tragedy or–” He hesitated, his smile fading. “Well, some people would prefer to see a comedy. But… I think the tragic view adds a certain dimension to life. Anyway, it’s the best we have.” He stared out his office window, brooding.

To the point, many atheist websites contain many quotes from Weinberg, some mentioning the Holocaust, for example there is this from the rather ironically named "Positive Atheism".

Religious people have grappled for millennia with the theodicy, the problem posed by the existence of suffering in a world that is supposed to be ruled by a good God. They have found ingenious solutions in terms of various supposed divine plans. I will not try to argue with these solutions, much less to add one of my own. Remembrance of the Holocaust leaves me unsympathetic to attempts to justify the ways of God to man. If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers.
-- Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory

I have long thought that the physicist Steven Weinberg has been one of the more absurd figures to hold as an expert on questions of morality and to listen to on these issues, since his scientific specialty has done more than most to create weapons and to give people the potential to make the Holocaust look like a trial run for universal and instantaneous evil on a scale that would make every living being, with, perhaps a few exceptions, the victims of organized, scientific death.   He, in fact, while not mentioning, explicitly the role of his fellow scientists, many of them, in fact, atheists, in creating the nuclear threat to all of life on Earth, notes its existence in John Horgan's Scientific American interview with him.

But the money quote that atheists will ususally give, the obvious reason he is so beloved by atheists who otherwise know nothing about him, despite the obvious contradictions between his life, his science, and the line is, also from "Positive Atheism"

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things -- that takes religion.

ell, obviously, in the case of nuclear weapons it took the work of a lot of atheists to do bad things.  Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, ...   In the case of the Soviet atomic and nuclear weapons system, it took the work of atheists giving one of the most massively evil regimes and men in history those weapons*, something which could also be said of Mao's weapons program and, I would imagine, that of the Kim regime in North Korea.  Though Kim had the help of a physicist who was prepared to sell the technology of mass murder for profit or to act as a broker, depending on who is explaining what happened. That is something I can't imagine the Muslim religion would countenance,  putting such weapons in the hands of atheists, leaving aside the disputed assertion that all nuclear weapons are banned by Islam.

But it is his comments linking the Holocaust to his arguments against God that are especially interesting to place beside Weinberg's more developed concept of morality.  In posts last year,  I went into what he said about morality during a session of Sean Carroll's "Moving Naturalism Forward" in which he stated that he was only really interested in the good of his family and his university department,  putting their welfare and even comfort before any moral obligation to others.  In short, Steven Weinberg's moral concern is related, entirely, to proximity of other people to himself, drawing a distinction between people close to him and all other people who he doesn't view as equally deserving his concern.

It may be unwelcomed or impolitic to say it but Weinberg's morality is exactly the same kind of moral frame that the Nazis gave for their policy of exterminating other, competing groups of people.   Jews, Poles, members of other minority groups, who were to be replaced by German People who required the space on Earth occupied by those competing people.   The policy of "Lebensraum,"  the policy of expanding the land base on which the German population could replace those who lived there, was central to the entire Nazi policy of mass murder of conquered people.  It was an extension of the circle of those who were close to the Nazi theorists and establishment based on national and ethnic identity, a wider circle than that which Weinberg explicitly states are the beneficiaries of his moral concern not based on universal equality and an equal right to the moral concern of others but based on personal identification with a group with superior claims on that moral concern.

In his explanation, on the video from Moving Naturalism, of how he adopted and give up different theories of morality, Weinberg notes that his final conclusions about radically restricted universes of moral concern are widely practiced in the human population.  I would agree that they are commonly, though not universally practiced.  Most people resist any impulse to extend their moral concern outside of their family circle and their larger circle with themselves at its center.  Which is among the most obvious reasons that people are treated unequally and exploited, used, used up and disposed of.

In fact, and in total contradiction of Steven Weinberg,  about the only reason that some people do try mightily to practice universal moral equality is, in fact, the religions that teach that.  As recently noted here, Marilynne Robinson identifies one of the major sources of that religious attempt at resisting human habits of selfishness in the Jewish Law as first given by Moses**.   It is certainly taught by Jesus as his universal moral concern, which is given in commandments, includes your enemies and those who persecute you, the hardest of his teachings include giving your money to those who won't give it back to you.  His very controversial teachings include the dissolution of familial obligations in favor of universalizing moral obligations, expressed in the most dramatic of terms, I suspect to emphasize just how radically different the morality Jesus taught was.   What is usually translated as a requirement to "hate" your closest family members (Luke 14:26) which, in a world saturated with exactly the kind of morality based in ego-centrism which Weinberg practices, must be about the most extreme opposite to it.

If Weinberg wants to know why the Holocaust could have happened if there is a God, he has his answer in his own moral discourse which is the same kind of morality as that which led to that mass murder.  He has the freedom to decide that for himself, other people had the same freedom to make the same kind of decision, that is why there was a Holocaust.  I don't hear him complaining about having that freedom of thought.  Anyone who through voluntary decisions of their own practiced the religious teachings of the two major prophets of Western religion, could not have produced mass murder such as the Holocaust.   Any society which practiced an unrestrained form of Weinberg's morality could, I think, hardly hope to avoid one.   I think that, given the ubiquity of Weinberg's morality, that it may have been due only to the inhibitions contained in the professed religions of people which prevented there from being more bloodshed.

The problem isn't that too many people are religious, it is that too few people are religious enough to overcome the natural tendencies of self-concern, self-interest and selfishness.  And, as even Weinberg says to his opponents in that circle of elite atheist thinkers, nothing in science will give you a durable reason for overcoming those.   The difference is that he rejects the one thing that can. Atheism has nothing in it that can do that.  For Weinberg to wallow in his dark vision of humanity is also his choice***.  It's not one that the human species can survive if too many people make it and actively work to dissuade people of the one thing that can, at times, resist it.   I am not one of those people who assert the moral equivalence of atheism, I suspect that any morality exhibited by atheists is a vestige of the moral teachings of religion retained by habit and mere inclination.  It's my observation of de-religionized families that you shouldn't expect it to persist more than a couple of generations, if that long.

*  I would suspect that the known nuclear spies who worked in the Manhattan Project were atheists, as all of them were, obviously,  Stalinists.   To be willing to give such weapons to someone whose record of mass murder was nothing to consider a minor detail apparently it didn't take religion.

**  The point which Robinson has been making, over and over again, in public for many years, that The Law of Moses included equal treatment for aliens living among the Israelites and an obvious concern for the lives and rights of other people, even Pagans, is in starkest contrast to the morality of those I'm examining here.

***   I asked Weinberg what gave him the fortitude to sustain such a bleak vision of the human condition. “I sort of enjoy my tragic view,” he replied with a little smile. “After all, which would you rather see, a tragedy or–” He hesitated, his smile fading. “Well, some people would prefer to see a comedy. But… I think the tragic view adds a certain dimension to life. Anyway, it’s the best we have.” He stared out his office window, brooding.

Update:  Hate Mail - No, we now know that the campaign to beatify Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was based on the lie that they were both innocent of trying to give Stalin the bomb years before he got it.   We now know that he certainly and she almost as certainly were, in fact, engaged in atomic espionage while he was employed by the government of the United States.   How that would differ from anyone who was trying to give Hitler the bomb is a matter of mere details.  And they were hardly the only Stalinists who were engaged in trying to give Stalin the bomb.

I know that's not what we were all told in the phony, pseudo-leftist folk lore we were brought up with but that happens to be only one of the many areas in which those dear old commies of our past lied to us, not what Woody would have alluded to in one of his movies.  Not that the fascists were telling the truth, ususally, but they did to the extent that they got the guilt of the Rosenbergs right.  They still shouldn't have been killed, THAT was a miscarriage of justice.  I know that's more nuanced than you're used to being but that's not my fault.

By the way, when I say "Hate Mail" most of it is actually in the form of rejected comments.  I stopped posting my e-mail address a long time ago, about the time I first started moderating comments.

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